U.S. Agents Posed Suspect With Humiliating Sign, Lawyers Say
Immigrants: Border Patrol says it will investigate circumstances of the booking of alleged smuggler.
ELLINGWOOD, Times Staff Writer
SAN DIEGO--The booking photo is routine except for what the suspect, an
smuggler, is holding. Propped below his face is a narrow sign proclaiming "I Support Our Border
The suspect, Jesus Ibarra Chavez, said he was forced to hold the sign and then mocked by Border
Patrol agents after his Feb. 27 arrest on suspicion of driving a truck loaded with illegal immigrants
through Imperial County.
Defense lawyers are seeking to have a federal smuggling indictment dropped on grounds that the
arresting agent violated Ibarra's civil rights by making him pose in a humiliating fashion. The action
amounts to "outrageous governmental misconduct" and fits a wider pattern of abuse by U.S. border
agents, the lawyers contend in a motion filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego. The motion is to be
heard June 12.
"Back in the '50s and '60s, blacks, when they were being arrested, would have to hold up a sign
saying, 'I Support Segregation,' " said Shaun Khojayan, who is defending Ibarra. "This is the
equivalent. . . . It's not right."
The case is a potential embarrassment for the U.S. Border Patrol, which in recent years has
claimed substantial gains in preventing rights abuses through better agent training and improved
An agency spokesman in El Centro, Calif., said the incident is being investigated by independent
federal auditors. He insisted that posing arrestees with signs is "not a practice" of the Border Patrol.
"We're not going to tolerate things like this," said the spokesman, Manuel Figueroa.
A copy of the booking photo was provided to federal prosecutors and to defense attorneys. A
photocopy was obtained by The Times.
The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Audra Ibarra, declined to comment on the defense motion or
the photograph. Authorities have declared prosecution of immigrant smugglers a top priority, branding
them as heartless profiteers.
Law professor Robert Fellmeth said forcing Ibarra to pose may have violated his rights. But
Fellmeth said that is unlikely to move a judge to dismiss the charges because the action was unrelated
to Ibarra's arrest or the evidence against him. Dismissals typically result from improper arrest or
illegally acquired evidence.
Ibarra, 23, has pleaded not guilty to charges of smuggling for financial gain, attempted smuggling
and transportation of illegal immigrants.
He was arrested after a Border Patrol pilot overhead spotted a pickup truck being loaded with
suspected illegal immigrants, according to the Border Patrol account. Ibarra, snared west of El Centro
by an agent on the ground after a short foot chase, said he had been asked to drive the immigrants to
Brawley, according to the report.
Ibarra said in a sworn statement that an arresting agent insisted he hold up the sign, while being
processed at the Border Patrol's station in Calexico. Ibarra--who has a limited understanding of
English--said he initially resisted but complied after the agent, identified in court documents as Jason
Caffey, ordered him to do so. He said Caffey and a second agent "said the picture was 'beautiful,' "
laughed at him and made him feel humiliated.
Two of the migrants who were also detained charge that they were punched and kicked by a
bearded agent. Questioned during a deposition attended by Caffey, the immigrants said they could not
identify him as the agent who struck them because Caffey was cleanshaven. Caffey indicated that he
had had a beard at the time of the incident.
A request for comment from Caffey was unanswered. Caffey, an agent for four years, testified
during a court hearing last month that he had arrested Ibarra but did not see the photograph being
taken. Photographs of immigrants and alleged smugglers are taken during booking and entered, along
with electronic fingerprints and biographical information, into an Immigration and Naturalization
Service computer database that helps authorities track repeat offenders.
Ibarra's attorneys said in the motion that the photo incident is one of several instances of border
agent misconduct. The document did not elaborate, but lawyer Guadalupe Valencia said they were
referring to two recent publicized cases.
In one, a Temecula-based agent pleaded guilty May 1 to obstructing justice by trying to cover up a
traffic stop in San Diego County during which he used force and left a suspected smuggler injured. In
the second, an Imperial County agent agreed to quit last year to avoid prosecution for allegedly using a
pellet gun to shoot at a raft carrying three suspected illegal immigrants.
Ibarra's lawyers said they knew of no other cases involving photographs of Border Patrol
arrestees. But Khojayan said the treatment of Ibarra undermines the government's case: "If the agent
did this to him, why should we give credence to all the rest of it?"