Two U.S. Border Patrol agents recently followed a family they saw in Bangor into the Goodwill thrift store on Stillwater Avenue.
The family “appeared to be of Central-American origin,” a Border Patrol agent wrote in federal court records, and the agents “overheard several people speaking Spanish” inside the store. Then, the agents approached the people and asked where they were from.
Eventually, they arrested one member of the group, 31-year-old Mateo Carmelo-Bartolo of Guatemala, on a charge that he re-entered the country illegally. He was previously deported in 2007 and 2010, and told agents he had returned in 2013, according to a court affidavit written by Border Patrol Agent Matthew McLellan in support of Carmelo-Bartolo’s arrest.
The Sept. 19 arrest jumps out to experts in immigration law not because the federal agents appeared to use race and language as the basis for questioning someone, but because they apparently admitted to it in court documents.
In the affidavit, McLellan explicitly mentioned the Central American appearance of Carmelo-Bartolo and his relatives, along with the fact that they were speaking Spanish. He did not provide any other reason for why the agents followed them into the thrift store and approached them — even though the Supreme Court has ruled that immigration authorities cannot target people solely based on their racial appearance.
“It’s not surprising that they’re relying on race,” said Kevin Johnson, an expert on immigration law who serves as dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law. “It’s somewhat surprising that they’re admitting to relying on race.”
Emma Bond, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said, “It’s chilling to hear that federal law enforcement agencies openly admit they approach people because of the color of their skin or the language they’re speaking.”
“That’s racial profiling, and people shouldn’t have to live in fear that law enforcement is going to target them and their families,” she said.
A New England spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Michael McCarthy, declined to say whether there were any other grounds for agents to stop Carmelo-Bartolo’s family, citing an agency policy of not “commenting on pending litigation.”
He also did not respond to questions about how frequently agents use racial appearance or spoken language as the initial basis for approaching suspects, or what the two agents were doing in Bangor, almost 100 miles from the nearest Canadian border.
McLellan’s affidavit only said they were assigned to do surveillance in Bangor on Sept. 19 and were “conducting patrol activities between transportation hubs.” It didn’t say where they first saw Carmelo-Bartolo’s family.
At the time of his arrest early on a Thursday evening, Carmelo-Bartolo was with his wife, his brother, his sister-in-law and two children, all of whom are from Guatemala, the affidavit said.