MIAMI (AP) — Videos of Border Patrol officers removing a woman from a passenger bus in Florida are raising alarm over a routine exercise that experts call questionable and rights groups deemed problematic as enforcement of immigration laws expands.
A college student who was aboard reported seeing three U.S. Border Patrol representatives waiting to enter a Miami-bound Greyhound bus as it pulled to a stop Friday in Fort Lauderdale. According to a witness who recorded a cellphone video and immigrant advocates who obtained images from another passenger, the officers boarded the bus and went row by row asking travelers for identification before taking a Jamaican woman into custody.
The videos have been widely shared on social media sites. Rights groups are calling attention to a practice they say unfairly targets minorities but has been common in areas near the U.S. border and coast. The uproar caused by the images also came as Congress members struggled over ending a government shutdown without agreeing on a permanent solution for the 700,000 young immigrants who were brought into the country as children and are now living in the U.S. illegally.
The Border Patrol said in a statement Tuesday that a routine immigration inspection was carried out Friday at the bus station where officers arrested a woman who had overstayed her tourist visa. The woman was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for detention, facing the prospect of deportation.
In the videos, officers are seen standing in the aisle asking a black woman dressed in a jacket and a wool hat where her luggage was located before walking her out. The uniform of at least one officer bore the words "Police U.S. Border Patrol" in yellow on the back.
Witness Raquel Quezada, a University of Florida student, told The Associated Press in a phone interview she was in the back of the bus when the officers went row by row demanding IDs. Those who didn't have them were asked to show their foreign passports and give details of their travels.
"When they got on the bus, they did not make any announcement," Quezada said. "The only thing they did was that they went seat by seat asking for U.S. documents."
She added that they didn't appear to be looking for anyone in particular because all passengers were asked for identification.
Greyhound spokeswoman Lanesha Gipson confirmed the incident and said the company is "required to comply with all local, state and federal laws and cooperate with the relevant enforcement agencies if they ask to board the buses or enter stations."
The Florida Immigrant Coalition said the woman taken into custody is from Jamaica and was visiting her granddaughter. According to the coalition, her daughter-in-law contacted its offices saying the family hasn't heard back from the woman since she was dropped off at a bus stop Friday morning.
"Without an official, judicial warrant, Border Patrol agents should not be permitted to board the private property of the Greyhound corporation to harass its customers with questions," said Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez, membership director for the organization, in a statement.
Rebecca Sharpless, director of University of Miami School of Law's immigration clinic, said immigration checks at buses and bus stations have happened in the region before. Within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of a U.S. land or coastal border, Border Patrol agents operate immigration checkpoints and conduct other activities, but she said they still need to show reasonable suspicion before conducting operations and not violate the Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizures.
"It doesn't look like they were tracking down someone specifically," Sharpless said.
A Florida International University law professor said the detention of the woman could have been the result of racial profiling. Ediberto Roman, director of immigration and citizenship initiatives at FIU, says that if the woman didn't have documents, then it wasn't clear what established reasonable suspicion.
"The detention at the very least looks questionable here," he said.
The Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter said it is investigating.