Jeffrey Isbell had never encountered the U.S. Border Patrol before moving to Las Cruces several ago. The first time he came upon an interior checkpoint, while driving to White Sands National Monument, he wondered if he had taken a wrong turn and was at the U.S./Mexico border.
Isbell, a political operative in Southern New Mexico, passed through that checkpoint without incident.
About a month later, he says he had a very different experience at a checkpoint north of Las Cruces.
“Apparently, when an agent asks you ‘Where are you heading?’, saying ‘I’m just out for a drive’ isn’t an appropriate answer, even though it was true,” Isbell recalled. He says the agent at the checkpoint asked personal questions. Then armed agents and a K9 dog surrounded his vehicle and he was asked to pull over and get out.
“I was in a state of shock as I stood on the side of the road like a criminal with my car being thoroughly searched,” Isbell recalled. He says he still deals with “severe anxiety” when he has to drive through checkpoints.
A 1953 regulation creates the zone within 100 miles of U.S. borders that lets Immigration and Customs Enforcement set up so-called interior checkpoints. Dozens are built on roads near the United States’ southern border to help catch immigrants without legal status and illegal drugs. Several checkpoints surround the region that includes Las Cruces and El Paso, Texas to the east, west, and north.
Racial profiling is the norm at such checkpoints. Those who travel through checkpoints also encounter armed officers and drug-sniffing dogs, surveillance cameras, and devices that capture license-plate numbers, location, date and time.
Isbell shared his story last week after I published a column about my recent experience at the checkpoint on Interstate 25 north of Las Cruces. My partner Sarah Silva and I arguably had our rights violated with questioning that wasn’t appropriate, and an agent intimidated and berated Sarah until she was shaking and near tears.
- Carlos Padilla wrote that agents searched his vehicle on a road between Doña Ana and Hatch because he was missing a lug nut on one of his tires and wasn’t taking the interstate. “Apparently, sightseeing is frowned upon in Southern New Mexico,” he wrote, adding that the experience cost him an extra 30 minutes and gave him “a negative attitude about federal law enforcement.”
- J.T. Perez wrote about getting nervous at checkpoints, “not because I’m doing anything suspicious but only because I’m a dark brown Mexican with black hair.” “I’m always hoping that they’ll notice the way that I’m dressed or hearing NPR on the radio to maybe change their outlook on me,” Perez wrote.
- Cyndy Roy wrote that she was once questioned about straw in the back of her vehicle that was for her chickens. She said her son, a passenger in the vehicle, “was given the third degree for having his cell phone out.” Like others, Roy noted that sightseeing seems to be “frowned upon.” “It’s clearly intimidation, and it is not acceptable,” she said.
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, I wrote in my column.
But some argued that probing questions from agents, and even occasional negative experiences, are an acceptable price to pay for security.
“I’m sure the 2,500 people who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 would have preferred that the U.S. Border Patrol not offend anyone while asking a few simple questions,” former New Mexico State Police Chief Faron Segotta wrote during the Facebook discussions.
While conceding that the agent my partner and I encountered may not have been as professional as he should have been, “your constitutional rights weren’t violated,” Segotta wrote.
“The measures taken by the Border Patrol are there to protect all of us,” he wrote. “If you can’t appreciate that, then maybe you should avoid traveling where you are required to pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint.”
Robert Godshall, a retired Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, suggested I was attempting to “bully” the Border Patrol with my column.
“You don’t like your home being militarized but apparently have no problem with your home being invaded by illegal aliens,” Godshall wrote. “Nice try at creating an oppressive environment at the Border Patrol checkpoint.”
Jody Crowley, a retired criminal justice professor who taught at New Mexico State University, wrote that my experience at the checkpoint “highlights what appears to be an epidemic of poor policing policy.”
“When they think of themselves as warriors in the fight against illegal trafficking rather than as protectors of civility, police feel justified in going all macho in confrontations,” Crowley wrote.
Godshall said agents are dealing with more than trafficking.
“Try standing at a Border Patrol checkpoint at 6 in the morning,” he wrote. “It’s still dark and you’re by yourself when a car drives up with two black guys that have just killed a convenience store clerk in Las Cruces.”
Some argued that the checkpoints are necessary to stop immigrants without legal status. Statistics the ACLU obtained through a lawsuit last year cast doubt on that claim: Less than 1 percent of immigrant arrests in Arizona happened at inland checkpoints.
“For example, only 697 of the 120,939 immigrant apprehensions made by the Border Patrol in the Tucson Sector in fiscal year 2013 were made at checkpoints. That’s 0.57 percent,” The Associated Press reported.
The negative feelings some have about federal policing in the border region extend beyond the inland checkpoints. Cassie McClure wrote her own column for NMPolitics.net about an experience at the U.S./Mexico border crossing at Santa Teresa. She complained that she and her family had their vehicle searched without good reason.
And during our Facebook discussions, Johana Bencomo, a community organizer in Las Cruces who works for N.M. Comunidades En Acción Y De Fé (CAFé), recounted a recent experience where she says she was “harassed” at the El Paso International Airport.
Bencomo said a Border Patrol agent initially let her pass through TSA screening after answering several personal questions. “Then after I had already crossed TSA screening he came after me, demanding to see my U.S. passport because I had said I was a naturalized citizen,” she wrote.
“This only proved to me that my citizenship is second class and will always be because of the color of my skin,” Bencomo wrote. (Disclosure: CAFé, Bencomo’s employer, is run by this journalist’s partner, Sarah Silva.)
Some said they accept the checkpoints — and answering personal questions — as part of life along the border. And not all shared negative experiences. Audrey Sanchez wrote about agents searching her vehicle at a checkpoint on U.S. Highway 70. When they pulled out a bucket of clothes, she says she “begged them, pathetically, not go through my dirty laundry.” An agent “chuckled, said okay, and thanked me for being so cooperative,” she wrote.
“I can’t complain about the treatment I’ve received crossing inspections,” Sanchez wrote. “Even my dad, a legal resident, crosses with ease. I was crossing so often from 2009-2013, I was always asked to which town I was headed, how many appointments I had, and was told to be careful going into strangers’ homes.”
On the other hand, Angelica Rubio, a Democratic state House candidate from Las Cruces who used to work for CAFé, said she feels anxiety every time she passes through the Highway 70 checkpoint near Alamogordo to visit family in Lake Arthur. Such checkpoints create a unique and bad situation in the border region, she said.
“It’s a disastrous policy that no one in the rest of the country understands — and some of us living here have become completely numb to the kind of trauma this environment causes to countless individuals and families,” Rubio wrote.