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SEATTLE (Reuters) - The Border Patrol is unjustifiably stopping people based on their skin color in Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, just across the water from Canada, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit filed on Thursday.
Two Latinos and a black man - two of them prison corrections officers - said in the complaint filed in U.S. federal court in Seattle that they were subject to racial profiling. One of the officers was in his uniform when he was stopped, the lawsuit said.
The accusations against the U.S. Border Patrol come as the agency has sought in recent years to bolster its enforcement along the northern border with Canada, to guard against illegal immigration and possible infiltration by Islamist militants.
"The Border Patrol's actions have created a climate of fear and anxiety for many people living on the Olympic Peninsula," Sarah Dunne, legal director of ACLU of Washington state, said in a statement.
"The residents in this suit all are U.S. citizens who worry that they could be stopped and questioned without reason any time they drive or are passengers in cars," Dunne said.
The Olympic Peninsula is a 3,600-square-mile (5,800-square-km)area in northwest Washington state, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Canada's Vancouver Island.
In the past decade, the number of Border Patrol agents at Port Angeles, at the north end of the peninsula and with ferry service to Vancouver Island, has increased to 43 from three, said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which joined the ACLU in the suit. Port Angeles is 80 miles northwest of Seattle.
The increase followed the 1999 arrest of Algerian Islamist militant Ahmed Ressam, who was stopped at Port Angeles after driving off a car ferry from Victoria in a vehicle filled with explosives he had planned to detonate at Los Angeles International Airport.
Richard Sinks, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said his agency "strictly prohibits profiling" based on race or religion.
"In determining whether individuals are admissible into the United States, (Customs and Border Protection) utilizes specific facts and follows the Department of Justice's 'Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies,'" Sinks said in a statement.
The ACLU was seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, so it would apply to other residents of the Olympic Peninsula. The complaint details the experiences of plaintiffs Jose Sanchez, Ismael Contreras and Ernest Grimes. Sanchez and Grimes are corrections officers, and Contreras is a high school student.
The lawsuit said that Grimes, who is black, was traveling in a car last year when he was stopped by a Border Patrol agent who approached with his hand on his holster and asked Grimes about his immigration status. Grimes was "wearing his correctional officer uniform at the time of this stop," the complaint said.
For each plaintiff, the complaint accused the Border Patrol of conducting the stop because the individual was "a person of color based on his complexion and hair color."
Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney