Is Riding the Bus a Ticket to Jail?

Border Patrol is raiding buses in Syracuse racially profiling people of color.

By Caroline Kim Jun 12, 2008

In December 2007, Artemio and two of his friends were traveling by bus through Syracuse, New York on their way to their homes in Mexico. Rather than celebrating Christmas with their families, however, the three men were arrested by immigration agents at a bus station. They were then detained at a county jail before being transferred to the ICE facility in Batavia, New York, and eventually deported to Mexico.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, also known as the Border Patrol, confirms that its agents in Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo check the citizenship status of travelers passing through by bus and train every day. These three cities are within 100 miles of the US-Canadian border. But more important than the border zone is the location of these cities on a major transportation corridor linking the Northeast (New York City and Boston) with the Midwest (Cleveland and Chicago). Border Patrol agents use Syracuse’s location as the functional equivalent of the border to police people traveling within the interior of the country.

Agents check for citizenship in the bus and train station—often waiting at the Greyhound ticket counter, or watching people as they disembark for food—and onboard buses and trains already filled with passengers. People who have witnessed or been subject to Border Patrol agents questioning describe two practices: agents explicitly target a group of people or ask everyone on board about their citizenship status.

According to reports from the Detainment Task Force, a Northern New York group, people routinely singled out for questioning include those who appear to be Mexican, Central American, South Asian, Asian, Afro-Caribbean, or Middle Eastern.  Border Patrol officials deny that the agency racially profiles, insisting that they look for suspicious behaviors and, “question people with blond hair and blue eyes as much as anyone else.” But common understandings of race in the U.S. fuse nationality and ethnicity so that some groups are permanently deemed to be “foreign.”

The story of Tomas, who is from Guatemala, illustrates the ways in which law enforcement’s use of racial profiling—and the collaboration of local law enforcement with Border Patrol agents—impedes people’s ability to travel.

In July 2007, Tomas and his friend Salvador were driving to a doctor’s appointment. As they pulled out of the toll plaza from the I-90 throughway in Syracuse, a state trooper stopped them. Tomas has a valid U.S. driver’s license and a properly registered vehicle. The state trooper gave no indication of why he had stopped the vehicle, but he did ask Tomas and Salvador about their immigration status and then called Border Patrol agents. “The police officer stopped us because we have Hispanic faces,” Tomas said.

Tomas has had the same experience traveling by bus. Last October he was traveling to Syracuse on Greyhound when Border Patrol agents boarded the bus at the Rochester bus station. “The Border Patrol agents questioned all the Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian passengers,” he recalled. “They did not question any of the white passengers except some women who were wearing veils. Border Patrol had dogs with them and checked the whole bus. They even looked in the bathroom.”

A separate incident occurred in December when Tomas was at the Syracuse bus station with another friend. They were speaking to each other in Spanish as they approached the ticket counter where a Border Patrol agent was stationed. “As soon as the Border Patrol agent heard us speaking Spanish, he asked me for my papers,” he said.

Even when Latino travelers produce documents proving their legal status, they are not safe from harassment.

When Tomas finally boarded the bus and arrived in Rochester, Border Patrol was there as well. “I saw them [Border Patrol] on the platform questioning two Hispanic men. The men gave them permanent resident cards. The Border Patrol agent didn’t believe them. He took the cards and called somewhere else. The men had to wait for twenty minutes.” The two men were eventually released.

Tomas’s testimony is not unique. A professor at Syracuse University who is a naturalized citizen originally from the Dominican Republic has been questioned multiple times in his travels and a Syracuse University student who is a U.S. citizen of South Asian descent was separated from his wife, a legal permanent resident, and both interrogated about their status.

This video filmed by Andrew Burton, a Syracuse University junior journalism student and winner of a 2008 Hearst Journalism Award, documents an actual raid on a Greyhound bus. If you can’t view the video below, please click here:

Racial profiling is never just an inconvenience; it systematically diminishes the civil rights and protections for entire groups of people. It is done to the Black community and the practice has now been extended to anyone who looks to be an immigrant. While most people of color are targeted, those who are most vulnerable are people whose visas have expired and unauthorized migrants for whom boarding a Greyhound bus becomes a ticket to jail. In Syracuse alone, multiple families have been separated for the crime of traveling while undocumented.

There is a seeming perversity to arresting migrants who are leaving the country as in the case of Artemio and his friends. But, this is now part of the country’s increasingly criminalized migration policy. The Los Angeles Times reported last month on outbound border checkpoints near San Diego-Tijuana where a Border Patrol official explained, "If our officers come upon people who are here illegally … regardless of whether they’re leaving the country, we detain them, make a record of the fact they were here illegally and return them to Mexico.”  This practice is reminiscent of Operation Streamline, a Border Patrol operation in Tucson, AZ that prosecutes and jails unauthorized border crossers. Currently, the U.S. Senate’s Border Security and Enforcement First caucus is trying to expand this practice nationwide. 

The criminalization of migration strips people of their rights and protections and solidifies racial and class hierarchies in the process. Turning the Syracuse bus and train station into a migrant policing checkpoint is one place in which we can see how the spectacles of “secure borders” and “dangerous foreigners” works to also produce a rights-less and more exploitable workforce.

Caroline Kim and Jenna Loyd are members of the Syracuse-based Detainment Task Force.