U.S. Border Patrol agents working about 100 miles north of the Mexican border say they have been given arrest quotas at odds with agency practices and threatened with punishment if they fail to meet the number.
Agents stationed in Riverside reported being ordered to arrest at least 150 suspected illegal immigrants in January and that two such arrests must lead to prosecutions, said Lombardo Amaya, president of Local 2554 of the National Border Patrol Council.
"They were told if you don't produce this, we will have to change your weekends off," Amaya said, adding that he will discuss the matter Monday with the sector chief who oversees the station. "Sometimes, like in politics, this agency is about looking good."
The alleged quotas, which involve only the Border Patrol's Riverside station, run counter to agency practice, which does not set a minimum number of arrests that must be made, said Lloyd Easterling, an agency spokesman in Washington.
"If we had quotas to fill and met those quotas, then would that mean we would be able to stop doing our job? No. Our job is to secure the border and detect, deter and apprehend anyone who is involved in illegal activity between the ports of entry," Easterling said.
Jeffrey Calhoon, chief patrol agent for El Centro sector, said he was not aware of any quotas and did not order them.
"We would never structure our work environment to create quotas," Calhoon said. "We have a union we have to negotiate with."
The agents' allegations come just weeks after one of their colleagues at the Riverside station was fired over a dispute with local management.
The union has filed a grievance appealing the termination of Tony Plattel, who says he was dismissed for disobeying an order to remain at a desert freeway checkpoint where six suspected illegal immigrants were picked up. Plattel said he wanted to take them to the station quickly because they looked dehydrated.
Arturo Alcaraz, the lead union representative at the Riverside station, said the 150-arrest mandate last month was a jump from targets set at the end of last year to make 100 arrests in both November and December.
Alcaraz said supervisors also told agents last October they could return to the station once they had arrested eight suspected illegal immigrants on a given day -- even if it only took them 20 minutes.
"The quality of the apprehensions no longer counts," Alcaraz said.
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council -- which represents close to 15,000 Border Patrol agents -- said quotas are unwise and unfair to agents because encounters with suspected illegal immigrants vary from day to day.
"You don't want to encourage agents to go out and look for something that isn't there because that is when you start to get into trouble," Bonner said.
Border Patrol officials declined to provide arrest statistics for the Riverside station, which has been in operation since 1967.
Immigrant rights advocates have questioned whether the quotas were driving Border Patrol agents to make more arrests in heavily populated areas and at day labor sites.
On Thursday, agents in Riverside took at least 11 suspected illegal immigrants into custody after local police detained them near a Home Depot store, Calhoon said.
Border Patrol agents also made arrests near a day labor corner in San Bernardino around Christmas that outraged immigrant advocates, who said the arrests were unusual so far from the border and appeared to infringe on workers' right to equal protection under the law.
"The fact that is disturbing is they appear to be jettisoning a whole number of constitutional protections to get numbers quickly," said Chris Newman, legal programs director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "What is more important to them: the quota or the Constitution?"
Some of the Border Patrol agents said they were concerned that requiring a certain number of arrests might lead agents to focus more on making stops at places like Home Depot rather than going after more challenging cases such as tracking down drug or immigrant smugglers.
But Calhoon said agents at the station in Riverside, a city of about 295,000 people about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, have long made arrests in urban areas and have the authority to do so under U.S. law.
He said the small station is part of the patrol's three tiers of enforcement: the border, checkpoints, and coordinated interior operations.
"We've never restricted our agents from arresting someone they casually encountered on the street," Calhoon said.