‘I am a citizen’ — When border patrol agents violate the rights of Americans
As one Arizona border community calls for closure of checkpoint, concerns grow over increased racial profiling and invasion of civil rights
It is a simple question that Carlota Wray has come to regard as an insult: “Are you a US citizen?”
For the record, the answer is yes: Wray has lived in the US for more than 30 years, is married to an American and became a naturalised citizen about a decade ago. But she resents being quizzed about her immigration status, and is sometimes asked to prove it, when she leaves her home in the tiny Arizona border town of Arivaca for routine trips to neighbouring places a couple of times a week.
So do a number of other Arivaca residents. They have stepped up protests against a Border Patrol road checkpoint just outside the town, complaining that it is ineffective, a nuisance, an invasion of civil rights and an invitation for agents to conduct racial profiling.
Dozens of people from Arivaca – population about 600 – held a demonstration on 27 May demanding the closure of the checkpoint, which has been in place for eight years. At the same time, six other Arizona border communities held events in what organisers termed a “day of action calling for demilitarisation”.
‘If I had white skin and blue eyes’
Wray is originally from Mexico and believes that agents treat her with suspicion as a result. “I have a brown colour and I’m very proud of my colour,” she said. “A couple of times they have asked for an ID for me to prove that I am a US citizen and they don’t believe my words. That makes me feel bad because if I’m saying I’m a US citizen it’s because I am. But they don’t believe it.
“If I had white skin and blue eyes … other people who aren’t even US citizens, they could be from Argentina or other places, but they’re white and they don’t ask those questions,” she said. “They’re still treating me like I walked [in from] the desert yesterday.”
The 57-year-old part-time library worker worries that the checkpoint has a negative effect on the town’s economy and a psychological impact on locals. “They make it look like a war zone and I don’t like it. My grandson is 10 years old and I want him to grow up in a place where he doesn’t see all these men in uniform with guns. The children are growing and they see all this and they think it’s normal, they think it’s a normal way of life,” she said.
Activists also argue that the true purpose of the Arivaca checkpoint and others is not interception but to act as a deterrent. This, they say, forces migrants crossing the border to trek through dangerous, remote terrain to avoid detection, resulting in deaths. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2013 that migrant death rates in southern Arizona were at an all-time high .
Border Patrol has insisted that Arivaca and the dozens of other interior permanent or temporary checkpoints in Arizona and across the US are legal and play a vital role in reducing illegal activity, such as drug and people smuggling.
A Texas inspection station along Interstate 10 near El Paso has become notorious for catching celebrities carrying marijuana, from Willie Nelson to Snoop Dogg to the Lone Ranger actor Armie Hammer. A sign at the entry to Falfurrias Checkpoint in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley details year-to-date seizures of drugs and undocumented migrants. “Thanks for your support of America’s frontline,” it says. Falfurrias is 75 miles north of the border.
But federal regulations allow border patrol agents to operate within 100 miles of America’s territorial boundaries. This means, according to the ACLU, that about two-thirds of Americans, some 200 million people, are in that zone.
Backed by the ACLU, members of an Arivaca community group, People Helping People, fielded a lawsuit last year claiming that Border Patrol has unconstitutionally hindered their attempts to monitor the checkpoint close-up. They are expecting a ruling soon. The group released a report saying that its monitoring showed that Latinos were 26 times as likely as whites to have to show identification and 20 times more likely to have to go through a secondary inspection.
“It is impossible to reconcile the dragnet stopping of passers-by with fourth amendment principles [against unreasonable searches and seizures],” said James Lyall, an attorney for the ACLU of Arizona. He drew parallels with the checkpoints, license-plate readers and bulk NSA collection of data – examples, he said, of how “the government inserts itself into people’s daily activities without any real oversight”.
A 1976 US supreme court decision gave agents limited authority to conduct brief stops, pose simple questions (such as “are you a US citizen” and “where are you going”) and ask to see documents to establish proof of legal presence in the US. For anything beyond this narrow purpose of determining citizenship there must be “reasonable suspicion” of unlawful activity.
Videos have proliferated on the internet of citizens refusing to answer questions. One collection of “top refusals” has more than three million views on YouTube.
In some encounters drivers are allowed to proceed despite declining to provide any information to agents. In others things go less well .
The case of Jessica Cooke
Jessica Cooke, a 21-year-old studying for a degree in law enforcement leadership, posted a video last month in which she appears to be pushed over and tasered by Border Patrol agents in upstate New York after refusing to comply with their instructions .
Her attorney, Ameer Benno, declined to make her available for interview but said she plans to launch a lawsuit which may allege violations of her constitutional rights. “They overstepped their boundaries. They put on a badge and they have a gun and they think they’re hot shit,” Cooke told WWNYTV local news .
A Customs and Border Protection spokesman said on Friday that the agency is still investigating the incident.
In the video, one of the agents says Cooke is being detained for further investigation by a canine unit because of her “nervous behaviour”. Benno said that “I think in this case it clearly is just a pre-textual reason for why they pulled her over. I think they were just apparently irritated or annoyed at the fact that she asserted her right and said ‘no you don’t have permission to search my car and now I’m not going to consent to opening up my trunk’.
“She has no obligation to do that. People talk back and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. It was perfectly legal for her to say what she said … she was very composed, she was asking questions in a very composed, non-nervous sort of way.”
Benno said it was an example of agents overstepping their authority. “I don’t think that this is unfortunately an isolated incident. We have seen over the last few years, not just at the border but everywhere, we’ve been seeing more and more of these incidents not because there’s been a flurry of activity, [a surge of] overreaching by law enforcement but technology has finally gotten to the point where everyone has a camera,” he said.
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