When John Lemus boards a bus in Spokane, he makes sure he has his papers in hand.
“The first time I rode the bus without [the certificate], I got hassled, and so now I just bring it,” said Lemus, a U.S. citizen who came from the United Kingdom and obtained his certificate of citizenship in 2017. “In theory, I shouldn’t have to carry that certificate with me.”
The Spokane Intermodal Center has been a hot spot for U.S. Custom and Border Protection agents because of its close proximity to the Canadian border. Federal law allows agents to board buses and ask for documents within 100 miles of the border — although passengers can refuse to talk without a lawyer or consent to a search.
Spokane city officials have pushed back against the federal agency. Last fall, the City Council passed an ordinance declaring the downtown bus center a private place exempt from warrantless searches.
Despite the ordinances, people continue to notify Councilmember Kate Burke about the Border Patrol boarding local buses. The debate grabbed national attention in January when agents boarded a Greyhound bus in Spokane and asked several individuals, including Portland comedian Mohanad Elshieky, to step off the bus and present their documents. Elshieky, a documented refugee from Libya who had completed a gig in Pullman, was riding the bus when agents stopped him and three other passengers of color.
He took to Twitter after the encounter, claiming officers accused him of having fake documents. Elshieky spoke to several media outlets but did not respond to an interview request.
After Border Patrol agents called and verified his immigration status, Elshieky said they warned him that next time, he would need to have his paperwork with him.
In a statement to a Portland newspaper, an agency spokeswoman aid Elshieky was not carrying “immigration documents required by law.”
Lemus said forcing legal immigrants to constantly carry and present documents has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
“If you are in the system, you shouldn’t have to worry about carrying any kind of physical paperwork with you,” said Lemus, a member of the Spokane Human Rights Commission.
Greyhound has updated its website to include information and resources for travelers worried about their rights on board.
“Basically we just wanted to be more transparent with our customers,” Greyhound spokesperson Crystal Booker said. “It’s just good to let them know what’s going on, especially in the Spokane area. This is really important for us, so that’s why we started to include it.”
Others have been less supportive, critics say. Spokane Mayor David Condon released a statement through the City of Spokane Twitter page saying that he lacked the authority to “impede federal officials.
“Implying otherwise just provides a false sense of security for individuals who are particularly vulnerable,” Condon said in the statement.
Burke said Condon has never agreed with the city ordinance because he does not see anything wrong with the bus searches.
“He refused to implement the law that we passed, which is not acceptable as a mayor,” Burke said. “Their job is to implement the laws that the City Council provides.”
Whether a city ordinance can override federal law remains unclear, but Lemus believes Condon could be doing more.
“I’ve heard several local attorneys say that the Mayor could be enforcing that ordinance, [that] he’s just choosing not to,” Lemus said.
Jefferson Coulter, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project’s Spokane office, said his office is unable to assist undocumented immigrants because the program receives federal funding. However, he said, cases like Elshieky’s have potential for legal action against federal agencies.
“I think there’s a potential civil rights liability,” Coulter said. “[Elshieky] was, it seems like, straight-up racially profiled.”
Lemus and Burke both said they are looking into how to take the next step.
“We need to be doing everything that we can to protect both documented and undocumented folks who are traveling through our city,” Lemus said.