With more people on the road visiting relatives, Thanksgiving week is a busy time at Border Patrol highway checkpoints. These days, more motorists are challenging the interior checkpoints and posting their videos on YouTube.
“Did I just cross the border? Was I outside the United States?” asks a man who in text before the video indicates he was stopped at a checkpoint on Interstate 10 leaving El Paso.
Border Patrol agents who ask for citizenship at highway checkpoints are now facing questions of their own.
“So you’re allowed to stop any person for any reason and harass him?” asks the motorist. The Border Patrol agent explains “It’s an immigration checkpoint, everybody is subject to inspection.”
But motorists at checkpoints across the U.S. have refused to answer questions. Those who object often cite the Fourth Amendment's protection against being questioned without probable cause. Some hand agents copies of the Constitution.
Some of the encounters are comical. In one video a man wearing tights and a cape speaks German to the border patrol agent.
Other encounters are tense, bordering on confrontational.
“Am I under arrest? What crime did I commit? Am I being detained?” asks a man in a car with four other passengers who posted his video.
“The answer to that is, 'yes,' they are being detained until the agent can satisfactorily determine each person’s citizenship.” explained George Gomez, supervisory agent for the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector.
Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector now have laminated cards they hand to motorists who question their authority at checkpoints.
The cards cite U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte, the Supreme Court decision that permits immigration checkpoints within 100 miles of the border without “individualized suspicion.”
The El Paso sector also produced a training video to help agents handle motorists who question their authority.
Many border residents who drive through checkpoints on a regular basis are familiar with the routine.
“They have a purpose, they certainly do,” said Jaime Garcia, manager of security operations for Delphi, an automotive company. “It’s all in the attitude, the way the questions are asked.”
Garcia — who has traveled the border for the past 20 years — objects to the scope of the questioning when it goes beyond citizenship.
“I’ve answered the question and said I’m an American. Whether I’m going to Van Horn or Marfa or I’m driving all the way to Florida, it’s really none of their business,” Garcia said.
A young woman who posted a YouTube video shot at an Arizona checkpoint also objects to further questioning, repeatedly telling agents, "It’s none of your business."
“I’m a United States citizen. Let me go.”
The woman was detained while agents ran a “records check” on her vehicle. She repeatedly told the agents they did “not have permission to search my car” and refused to move her car into “secondary” for further inspection.
Agents ran a drug-sniffing dog around her vehicle. After an agent asks a coworker, “You got anything on the dog?” and asked again about citizenship, the woman and her passenger were allowed to drive through the checkpoint.
When it comes to searches, “That is based on either no probable cause if the canine alerts to the vehicle, or we get verbal consent from the owner of the vehicle, the driver,” Agent Gomez explained.
For some, the desire to avoid delays outweighs the need to make a point.
In another YouTube video a man accompanied by his wife and little girl refuses to answer the citizenship question on his way from El Paso to Alamogordo, New Mexico.
An agent at the checkpoint tells him, “If you really want to waste time, I’ve got eight hours.” The man responds, “so do I.”
During the video he tells the agent, “I don’t roll through here with my birth certificate. I roll through here with a copy of the Constitution.”
But when his wife is asked the same question, she answers: “Yes,” followed by their little girl who says, “Me, too.”
And the family is allowed to drive through the checkpoint.