A former Border Patrol officer said Thursday that constant demands to meet monthly arrest quotas led agents in the Inland Empire to cruise streets, bus stops and even medical clinics looking for illegal immigrants.
"We had to make eight apprehensions a day and if we didn't meet that goal we were pressured to get more the next day," said Tony Plattel, who was fired last month for driving what he said were six dehydrated illegal immigrants back to headquarters despite orders to wait until his van was full. "I interfered with the quota, that's why I was fired," he said.
According to Plattel, agents trying to fill those quotas would drive on Baseline Road in San Bernardino searching for anyone who looked "wet," slang for a newly arrived illegal immigrant.
"If we didn't find any we would go to Home Depot or day labor sites," he said. "We got an old guy stepping out of a medical clinic once."
He said he once saw agents bring in a mother with a child on a respirator.
The Border Patrol is conducting an internal investigation over allegations that its Riverside office had monthly arrest quotas and would punish those who didn't meet them by changing their schedules. The El Centro office, which oversees the nine agents in Riverside, denies setting quotas but said "goals" were in place.
"Quotas would be detrimental to our mission. It would hurt morale and put pressure on agents," said Border Patrol spokesman Richard Velez. "We set goals but not in numerical ways. [Plattel] is no longer an employee and you have to consider why he is making those statements."
But Lombardo Amaya, president of Local 2554 of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Plattel, said all the Riverside agents have made similar complaints.
"It wasn't just Tony," he said. "Everyone who is not a supervisor complained to me."
Plattel, 37, spent 13 years with the Border Patrol. He worked in San Diego and Arizona before coming to Riverside nearly two years ago. He said the quotas varied. Sometimes it was 150 a month, then it was eight arrests a day, he said.
The patrol agent in charge was Ramon Chavez.
"He told us there was a mandate from the sector and they wanted 150 arrests a month, two prosecutions and 20 vehicle seizures," Plattel said. "If we didn't meet the quotas he would change our shifts. We would ask, 'Why? Is there some kind of emergency?' and he said, 'No, you guys are not producing.' "
Chavez declined to comment.
The result, Plattel said, was plummeting morale as agents scrambled for numbers rather than high-profile criminals. He said U.S. citizens were mistakenly stopped and quizzed about their backgrounds.
"You can't say you want these numbers without opening yourself up to civil rights violations," he said. "Where do you draw the line?"
Immigrant rights groups have protested what they see as increased Border Patrol activity in the Inland Empire, including one operation that nabbed about 25 people near a Home Depot in Riverside. On Thursday, demonstrators delivered a Freedom of Information Act request to the Border Patrol office demanding records on enforcement activity.
"We have received complaints from American citizens stopped at the Greyhound station," said Emilio Amaya, executive director of the nonprofit San Bernardino Community Services Center. "There is a lot of racial profiling going on. I have been stopped several times myself and I am an American citizen."
When operating in inland areas, the Border Patrol generally sticks to transportation centers such as bus stops, airports and major highways, said Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling.
"If agents driving around on patrol encounter something in the line of duty that is against the law they are allowed to make arrests," he said.
But T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said agents have stricter parameters when working away from the border.
"They cannot conduct any sort of operation they want. Transportation hubs are OK, but day labor sites need to be coordinated" with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said. "But in talking with some of these guys it seems it was all done with a wink and a nod."
Bonner said quotas encourage people to bend the rules.
"Given the choice between taking a criminal alien or a gardener off the street, any agent would opt to get the criminal alien," he said. "But a quota robs you of complex investigations because you are only worried about numbers."
Plattel's troubles began April 15 while working along California 40 near Barstow. Six illegal immigrants, four men and two women, were arrested and put into his van.
"They were in bad shape," he said. "They were dehydrated, dirty and hungry. They all had to use the restroom."
Fearing they might become seriously ill, Plattel decided to take them back to Riverside. But his supervisor told him to stay put, that his van was only half full.
"I told her they were in bad shape and needed food and water. She said, 'You only have six there and you need six more,' " he said. "She said, 'I am giving you a direct order.' "
He ignored the order.
According to internal Border Patrol documents, Plattel's actions jeopardized operations and caused a shortage of agents and of holding space for illegal immigrants. He was fired Jan. 5.
"If I had followed those orders and one of the dehydrated guys died, what do I do? I am covered by the Border Patrol but what if the family comes and sues me?" he asked. "Ultimately, you are responsible for these detainees."
Plattel is involved in arbitration to get his job back. But his wife, Maria, a nurse, said starting this month they could no longer pay the mortgage on their Murrieta house.