You drive up to the Border Patrol checkpoint, the agent asks your citizenship — or asks nothing at all — and you go on.
That’s the way drivers usually experience the Border Patrol’s many Southern Arizona checkpoints.
But your checkpoint experiences can change dramatically once you’ve had agents subject you to a deeper questioning, once they send you into “secondary” for a search with the dogs, and once you watch powerlessly, detained as your neighbors drive by. After that, anticipation of the checkpoint may begin before you leave your home, the approach to the checkpoint may raise your anxiety and the questions may spark your anger.
That’s what we seem to be seeing in Southern Arizona now, as protests form over Arivaca-area checkpoints, and frustrations spread among those who must pass regularly through the Border Patrol phalanx. The number of residents who’ve been rendered powerless at checkpoints, or heard the stories, slowly grows, and the frustration gradually spreads, even if most checkpoint experiences are uneventful.
Keith Acker was feeling that anxious anticipation when he arrived at the I-19 checkpoint north of his home in Tubac March 3. He had been questioned, searched, and threatened before, he says. So he felt that dread when one of the agents said, “You need to pull over,” Acker said.
”I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Just pull over,’ ” Acker told me.
Agents said a dog had alerted to his car, Acker said. The search was on. Dogs in the front seat, dogs in the back seat, dogs in the trunk where the groceries were sitting.
After perhaps 45 minutes, Acker, 53, was free to go, he said. But his restored 1995 Cadillac Deville had scratches on the upholstery, carpet torn out in the trunk and the groceries were dog-trodden. An agent gave him a claim form, Acker said.
”It’s so traumatic to have that happen,” Acker said.
Customs and Border Protection officials say agents are trained to follow the law and treat travelers courteously. In answer to a January report by the ACLU of Arizona, the agency responded:
”CBP Officers and Border Patrol agents enforce the nation’s laws while preserving the civil rights and civil liberties of all people with whom CBP personnel interact. Our officers and agents are trained to recognize people and situations that present a potential threat or violation of law without regard to race.”
They try to keep the stops brief, the agency said in response to a question I submitted, but that statement added, “The length of time will depend on the cooperation of the motorist, the availability of documents verifying a person’s legal right to be present in the United States, and any suspicious behavior or items in plain view that provide the Border Patrol agent with reasonable suspicion that there is criminal activity (other than an immigration violation) afoot.”
It all seems so simple and straightforward in writing, but one of the chief complaints by Acker and others is that in real life, agents’ treatment of drivers can be so inconsistent.
The ACLU’s January report noted a common experience: When drivers don’t obey the agents precisely, the interchange quickly deteriorates as agents assert their authority. One of those featured in the report, Bisbee resident John Forrey, refused Dec. 6 to tell an agent where he was going.
”I go through the BP checkpoint at Tombstone quite often. They have been getting quite fearless,” Forrey told me.
It was when the agent quickly asked to look into the trunk of Forrey’s Chevrolet Corsica that Forrey really got his back up. One thing led to another, and an agent ended up pulling his weapon and pointing it at Forrey’s head, he said. Eventually, after a long search and an exchange of unpleasantries, Forrey was allowed to go.
You can understand why agents would grow frustrated with drivers who don’t answer their questions. This is just their job, after all, and checkpoint shifts are probably boring, frustrating and, from May through September, hot. Then people drive up with an attitude.
”You put up with more at the checkpoint than you do anywhere else,” said Art Del Cueto, president of the agents union in the Tucson Sector, the National Border Patrol Council local 2544. “From my experiences on my own, I’ve probably had more rude individuals who come through the checkpoint and are in the country legally then with people I’ve arrested.
”If you come through the checkpoint and you’re arguing or complaining for no reason, the agents are human. The agents are going to say, I have authority to do certain things.”
The problem is, as the ACLU report contends, “Many Border Patrol officials do not understand — or simply ignore — the legal limits of their authority at the checkpoints.”
Case law allows agents to do brief questioning about any traveler’s immigration status, but often, if agents’ curiosity is aroused, they seem to go straight to questioning and searches about drugs or other contraband.
If the agents don’t suspect an immigration violation, the law requires them to have “reasonable suspicion” of criminal wrongdoing before detaining travelers and searching their vehicles. Often that reasonable suspicion comes in the form of drug-sniffing dogs “alerting” to a vehicle, or more specifically, of the agents saying the dogs alerted.
Some drivers contend the dogs are occasionally used as props to justify searches the agents want to make.
The Border Patrol could ease the existing tensions if residents felt they had some shred of power at the checkpoints — such as the ability to ask a question without it being taken as a threat to the agents’ authority. Even a system where complaints could be made and responses dependably received would help.
“They answer to the Homeland Security in Washington, D.C,” said Acker, of Tubac. “That might as well as be another country.”
Without some movement to empower the residents, complaints will fester and frustration will spread.