COMMENTARY: Law enforcement officers play a critical role in our society. I believe most are hard-working, well-intentioned people who care deeply about our communities.
I wish my partner and I had encountered one of those officers at the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 25 north of Las Cruces during a recent drive.
Instead, an angry, armed agent arguably violated my partner Sarah Silva’s constitutional rights. Worse, he intimidated and berated her until she was shaking and near tears. Sitting next to Sarah, I felt powerless to stop it. Then the agent arguably violated my constitutional rights.
A 1953 regulation creates the zone within 100 miles of U.S. borders that lets Customs and Immigration Enforcement set up checkpoints. Racial profiling is the norm. Today those of us who travel through checkpoints encounter armed officers and drug-sniffing dogs. Surveillance cameras watch us. Other devices capture license-plate numbers, location, date and time.
This militarization of my home makes me feel uneasy. Still, in my experience, most agents are reasonably friendly and wave most people through without incident.
Sometimes something much worse happens. For Sarah and me, March 23 was that day.
The appropriate question from an agent is something like “Are you a U.S. citizen?” Where you’re going, where you were born, where you’ve been, and what you’re doing is not the government’s business.
This agent asked Sarah where she was born.
Sarah is Latina and feels anxiety about our nation’s anti-immigrant climate and racial profiling by law enforcement. She responded with the appropriate answer:
“I’m a U.S. citizen.”
The agent wasn’t pleased that Sarah didn’t answer the question he asked. He leaned in quickly, getting in her face. With another agent standing over his shoulder and giving tacit approval, and a third agent standing on my side of the vehicle, the armed officer asked several questions and lectured Sarah quickly – too quickly to process, let alone respond. He continued in a raised voice until she was shaking, near tears, and said she was born in the United States.
The agent stood back up and asked, with a half smile and a tone, “There, was that so hard?”
Then the agent asked where I was born. Not wanting to escalate the situation further, I said I was born in the United States. I didn’t ask for his name or badge number, or to speak with a supervisor. I didn’t insist that he stop berating Sarah.
I know Sarah can defend herself, but I still feel shame about not standing up for her. And I was frightened. Now that we’re out of what felt like a dangerous situation, we’re filing a formal complaint.
After the agent gave permission to leave that day, Sarah drove out of the checkpoint and immediately had to pull over. Her hands were shaking. She wept. I kept an eye on the rear-view mirror as I listened and tried to comfort her, wondering if agents would come investigate why we stopped.
I’m still livid. Such harassment doesn’t make Americans safer. It raises fear and tension. It increases the risk of confrontations that end with officer-involved shootings.
Sarah and I both have daughters. I want them to feel safe calling law enforcement for help. I want them view police officers as protectors.
Had our girls been with us that day, that agent would have taught them to be terrified of law enforcement officers.
Our daughters deserve better. I’m a U.S. citizen, and I demand better.