Checkpoints frustrating to some, effective to others
LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Sometimes when out-of-state visitors roll up on U.S. Border Patrol agent Yesenia Leon's checkpoint, they panic.
“A lot of people think that they're entering Mexico,” Leon, 32, said with a laugh.
You can't blame them. Up north, near Canada, only one Border Patrol checkpoint is permanently manned. Border Patrol staffs 24/7 this facility straddling I-10, plus 34 similar stations in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California.
The I-10 Las Cruces checkpoint is about 60 miles north of Mexico. To the Border Patrol, the “border” isn't just a line on a map.
It's a zone up to 100 miles north of Mexico, cut into three tiers of enforcement: observation posts along the Mexico border, roving dragnets to catch anyone who got past the initial border security, and checkpoints many miles inland where agents screen vehicles for illegal aliens and narcotics.
Only about 4 percent of Border Patrol's 18,000 agents are stationed at these interior checkpoints, but in recent years they've accounted for more than a third of all the agency's drug seizures.
In the southwestern borderlands, they also netted one of every four coyotes trying to smuggle in undocumented immigrants in 2013 and 2104, a Tribune-Review investigation found.
“Imagine all the stuff that we're catching. What if we weren't here?” said Doyle E. Amidon, 43, Patrol Agent-in-Charge in Falfurrias, Texas, including a checkpoint that's about an hour's drive north of the Mexico border.
Critics contend that Border Patrol checkpoints treat law-abiding U.S. citizens in ways that northerners don't understand. They allege that Hispanics are ethnically profiled, detained without warrants, searched illegally, interrogated without cause and, sometimes, unlawfully arrested or beaten.
“Something Washington always seems to forget is that people live here and we've got to live with the decisions that they make, no matter how divorced they are from reality,” said Vicki B. Gaubeca, 53, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico's Regional Center for Border Rights in Las Cruces.
Numerous civil lawsuits have been filed along the border over these issues. To plaintiffs and their supporters, federal checkpoints are symptoms of lost civil rights because of an ongoing “militarization” of the border.
Border Patrol agents cite special powers provided nearly four decades ago to checkpoint officers by the U.S. Supreme Court.
They can legally stop and briefly question all drivers and passengers, even if there's no suspicion that they are undocumented immigrants. They're also granted wide latitude to visually inspect vehicles, have trained canines sniff them for contraband or people, and scan them with gadgets that function much like an X-ray machine.
“A K-9 isn't racist. He doesn't care what you look like,” Leon said, “He alerts to drugs and people.”
A tale of two checkpoints
On paper, two types of Border Patrol checkpoints exist: the 35 permanent stations like the I-10 post near Las Cruces, and 175 “tactical” operations sprinkled along secondary roads to catch drivers attempting to circumvent the larger checkpoints. Citing security concerns, Border Patrol declined to release the exact locations of the tactical facilities.
Agents, however, said many of the tactical posts are not manned around the clock, lack holding cells, and move around – something spotters working for the smuggling gangs track, alerting coyote drivers when the checkpoints go down.
Most checkposts encountered by a Trib investigations reporter across the border region, especially in Arizona, appeared to be permanent stations, even if federal agents did not call them that.
Gaubeca said that problems followed the construction of the I-10 checkpoint and nearby stations in Truth or Consequences, Alamogordo and Deming, N.M.
The ring of checkpoints effectively created a “bubble” of undocumented immigrants stuck inside Las Cruces, she said, afraid to leave because they might get caught.
Other critics point to economic losses triggered by checkpoint construction.
A 2012 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found that a permanent Border Patrol checkpoint near the Tucson suburb of Green Valley, Ariz., cut the value of residential real estate about $2,700 per house or condo. It blamed the drop on unpredictable wait times, traffic jams, problems getting goods and tourists through inspection lanes, and perceptions that the existence of a checkpoint indicated an area that is unsafe.
Border Patrol's Leon said securing the homeland comes with tradeoffs. A checkpoint might frustrate commuters and truckers, she said, but it also is a highly effective means of catching coyotes as well as scofflaws who have committed all sorts of crimes, from drunk drivers to pedophiles identified in Amber Alerts.
“It's for their own safety,” Leon said. “Let's talk about children. You get kidnapped children through here.”
To understand how opinions over checkpoints could vary so dramatically, one need only go from one business to another inside the strip mall at 615 E. Lohman Ave. in Las Cruces.
Suite C belongs to Unbreakable Tattoo Studio, where owner Adam Cedillo, 33, said he believes checkpoint agents routinely violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms by seizing lawfully-owned weapons possessed by Hispanics suspected of being smugglers.
“I've had my whole family pulled out. There I was in a big truck – a Suburban – and they ordered all of us out of it,” Cedillo said. “It was embarrassing because everyone thinks you've done something wrong, but you haven't!
“They were mad about the fact that I had a concealed-carry license and had tattoos. I try to be as respectful as possible when they do that, but what they're doing is wrong.”
Next door in Suite A is Milo's barber shop, where Daniel Tarango, 24, of nearby Silver City, told a Trib investigations reporter that Border Patrol agents at checkpoints are unfailingly polite and professional. He's never been profiled and he's glad that they're present to protect him.
“They've never bothered me. And I have family members who are in Border Patrol. I know that they're just doing their job,” he said.
The Arivaca Road checkpoint squats near the Amado Exit of I-19. A' Trib investigations reporter found that 28 drivers were convicted in 2013 and 2014 after trying to smuggle illegal aliens through it.
All but one of the coyotes were U.S. citizens; nearly 70 percent had substance addiction problems, court records show.
The village of Arivaca, population about 700, is 20 miles west of the checkpoint and four miles north of the border.
When a Trib investigations reporter arrived in town, a Border Patrol truck had pulled over a pair of elderly birdwatchers, the Southern Baptist Church's Sunday services were ending, a laconic row of cowboys sipped beers in the nearby tavern and, across the street, a shirtless man spent the better part of an hour throwing a rock, blankly chasing it as it skittered through the dust.
More than 600 residents from the village and surrounding areas have signed a petition calling for the removal of the checkpoint that opened three years ago.
While Border Patrol watches the town, the town watches Border Patrol. Since 2012, volunteers have monitored agents and kept pressure on Washington, holding frequent protests at the post and carrying on a campaign against it on social media.
Supporters have responded by erecting a sign telling drivers that Arivaca and nearby towns actually embrace the checkpoint.
Don Nusbaum, 79, a Bell System Labs retiree who helped found the nearby unincorporated settlement of Moyza, said opposition or support for the checkpoint defies easy labels. He considers himself pragmatic, politically independent with a conservative streak, and yet he wants the feds to shutter the checkpoint.
His opposition stems partly from concerns that checkpoints waste taxpayer money.
“Get (the agents) out of Arivaca and put them on the border where they belong,” he said.
“Welcome to Arivaca! Now fold up the Constitution and put it in your back pocket, because everything we do now is based on fear,” said John Warren, 55 who organizes dissent against the checkpoint.
Other residents told a Trib investigations reporter that fears of federal persecution are overblown.
“I've had no problem. They don't harass me,” countered Carol Robson, 56.
“You used to see 10 to 15 people running through. We don't see that as much now,” said Darrin Hendrix, 46, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, a major part of the cottage economy here. “You see a lot of Border Patrol.”
Interestingly, Robson, Hendrix and Warren work together at Arivaca's general store, The Mercantile, and consider each other friends.
“There's been a lot less discord than people would imagine,” Warren said.