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As Border Patrol searches its buses, Greyhound is pulled into immigration uproar

Greyhound says it must comply with federal law and allow Border Patrol agents to board buses when they ask to do so. (Amanda Voisard for the Washington Post)

He was a 12-year Miami resident originally from Trinidad, taken off a Greyhound bus in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., by U.S. Border Patrol agents in January.

She was a 60-something Jamaican national who had just met her granddaughter for the first time, whose Greyhound was stopped by Border Patrol. She was arrested and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

And on the other side of the country, they were an undocumented father and son riding a Greyhound from Seattle to Montana when agents came aboard and asked, “Are you illegal?” “Do you have your documents?” The son, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient traveling without his papers, was held for a few hours. The father was sent to a detention center.

It is here — between the rows of seats on Greyhound buses and at stations across the country — that America’s policies and fraught divisions over immigration are also playing out. The private bus line says it is caught in the middle of an ugly issue beyond its control.

But legislators and justice groups argue that by allowing Border Patrol to conduct the immigration checks, Greyhound exposes its passengers to violations of their constitutional rights to be free from racial profiling, harassment and warrantless searches and seizures.

They say it is up to Greyhound — which serves 18 million passengers yearly across 3,800 destinations — and other massive transportation companies to pick a side. Others predict Greyhound’s reputation could take a hit at a time when customers expect businesses to take a stand in social and political debates.

“They haven’t made a choice; they’re just letting Border Patrol do this, and that’s not neutral,” said Chris Rickerd, policy counsel of the ACLU national political advocacy department. “If they wanted formally to consent, they can say, ‘we consent.’ What we think they should do is put their customer interests first and say, ‘we don’t consent unless there is probable cause or a warrant.’ ”

The debate places Greyhound in the national uproar over the Trump administration’s immigration policies, including the Department of Homeland Security’s practice of separating migrant families when they cross the border. The government’s “zero tolerance” approach has prompted politicians on both sides of the aisle to condemn the policy as immoral and cruel.

Corporate America has spoken out, too. Apple chief executive Tim Cook said “what’s happening is inhumane, it needs to stop.” Mark Zuckerberg suggested giving donations to the Texas Civil Rights Project. American Airlines said it wanted the government to “immediately refrain” from using its planes to separate families. Within hours Delta, Soutwest, United and Frontier followed suit.

A DHS spokesperson responded to the actions with a series of tweets, including: “Buckling to a false media narrative only exacerbates the problems at our border and puts more children at risk from traffickers. We wish the airlines would instead choose to be part of the solution.”

(On Wednesday afternoon, President Trump signed an executive order ending the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border.)

Greyhound said it is required to comply with the law by allowing Border Patrol agents to board buses when they ask to do so. A spokesperson, Lanesha Gipson, said the company doesn’t “support or coordinate these searches, nor are we happy about them.” Gipson acknowledged that searches negatively affect customers. She said Greyhound also worried about the risk to drivers, too.

“We have started conversations with the Border Patrol to determine if there is anything that can be done to balance the enforcement of federal law with the dignity and privacy of our valued customers,” Gipson said.

Gipson cited a series of laws with which she said Greyhound must comply when it comes to immigration checks on buses. They include the statutory provision saying that any immigration officer has the power to board buses and search for undocumented riders without a warrant “within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States” to prevent unlawful entry.

CEOs are calling the separation of children and families at the border ‘inhumane’ and ‘tragic’

The federal government defines a “reasonable distance” as 100 air miles from the United States’ external borders, land or maritime. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Border Patrol’s claimed authority to board a bus or train without a warrant within that zone encompasses two-thirds of the U.S. population (about 200 million people) most of the country’s 10 largest cities and some entire states.

The ACLU and legislators argue that the law authorizes agents only to search for undocumented immigrants on buses so long as those agents comply with the Constitution, which has priority over any congressional statute. Doing so, according to a Supreme Court case cited by the ACLU and members of Congress, requires Border Patrol to either have probable cause for a search, or have Greyhound’s explicit consent to board and search.

U.S. border patrol officials boarded a Greyhound bus in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 19 and asked for identification from passengers. (Video: Florida Immigrant Coalition)

In a letter sent by members of Congress to Greyhound’s president and chief executive David Leach last week, the legislators asked:” Will you change this practice and refuse [Border Patrol] agents permission to board buses, outside a port of entry or lawful checkpoint, without probable cause?”

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), who led the tri-caucus letter to Greyhound, told The Washington Post that every time riders board a bus, they shouldn’t have to carry papers proving their citizenship, especially when traveling across locations other than ports of entry or lawful checkpoints.

“We must call out these constitutional rights violations taking place on board Greyhound buses under the pretext of ‘transportation checks,'” he said.

In Greyhound’s response letter, Leach wrote that he was concerned about customer experience when Border Patrol conducts its searches, because the raids cause delays and missed connections, in addition to the concerns raised by the ACLU. He also said the company couldn’t direct drivers to physically block armed officers from searching buses without putting them in danger.

Leach said he would support changing the law allowing warrantless searches within the 100 miles from the border, and that the company would work with Congress to do so. He suggested that other bus companies, the American Bus Association and Amtrak be included in the process, “as Greyhound should not be singled out as the sole company facing these problems.”

The exchange follows a lawsuit filed in May by the ACLU of Maine against Border Patrol and DHS. The complaint states that the agencies ignored a Freedom of Information Act request for records about checks on the citizenship statuses of bus riders in Maine.

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In March, the ACLU of Maine and other ACLU affiliates signed a letter urging Greyhound to change its policies allowing Border Patrol to conduct warrantless raids. Similar letters were also sent to Concord Coach Lines and Peter Pan Bus Lines.

Concord came under fire after a bus driver in Maine told passengers that they had to be U.S. citizens in order to ride. A video of the interaction at a station in Bangor, Maine, over Memorial Day weekend shows passengers waiting to board the bus being approached by a Border Patrol agent asking whether they are U.S. citizens.

Last week, Concord issued a statement saying passengers do not have to be U.S. citizens. The employee in the video “was caught off-guard with a question that he was unprepared to answer and made a mistake that we share,” the statement said.

The company also said it supports its riders’ rights not to answer questions from Border Patrol and that declining to do so “will have no bearing on whether we allow them to ride with us.”

Customers have come to expect that companies will take some sort of stand.

Anthony Johndrow, a corporate reputation adviser based in New York, said companies of all kinds are expected to “stand for something whenever an issue comes along.” That often requires more than simply citing laws with which a company must comply, he said.

Issues surrounding immigration checks on buses didn’t come suddenly for Greyhound or its competitors, added Timothy Coombs, a crisis communication expert at Texas A&M University. And the checks can’t be easily ignored, Coombs said, given cellphone videos and eyewitness accounts that quickly surface online.

“Customers of all businesses right now, they are looking for businesses that they want to have a relationship with, that have a clear set of values and stand for something,” Johndrow said. “They really, really are making purchase decisions based on companies they feel have a set of values that they can align with and can at least respect.”

“And if you don’t have any values at all,” Johndrow continued, “you’re going to lose.”

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