Fed up with an interior checkpoint that creates inconveniences and breeds discrimination, an Arizona community is banding together to fight the “temporary” stopping point.
LOS ANGELES –Every day of the school year, the children of the tiny Southern Arizona community of Arivaca ride a bus along a two-lane desert highway to and from their schools in Amado, 25 miles away. And every time they travel Arivaca Road, they encounter an obstacle guarded by armed U.S. law enforcement officials.
Straddling the highway a few miles outside of Amado is a “temporary” checkpoint that the U.S. Border Patrol erected in 2007 to apprehend illegal immigrants and drug smugglers who may have slipped past the nearby U.S.-Mexico border. All Arivaca residents — white or Latino, young or old — have to stop at the Amado checkpoint, which is manned 24 hours a day.
Some of the schoolchildren are too young to have known what life was like before the Border Patrol stepped up enforcement in the interior border regions of Arizona.
“We’re worried that they have started to see this as normal,” Arivaca resident Leesa Jacobson told MintPress News in an interview.
The Amado checkpoint is part of a multilayered enforcement strategy along the nearly 2,000-mile expanse of the southwest border. While agents at the border are assigned to prevent illegal crossings and roving patrols detect those who make it past the first line of defense, the government also uses 71 traffic checkpoints located on major highways and secondary roads, usually 25 to 100 miles inland from the border.
“Border Patrol checkpoints are a critical enforcement tool for securing the Nation’s borders against all threats to our homeland,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of the Border Patrol, says on its website.
But Arivacans complain that the militarization of the border area has not only inconvenienced them but also resulted in human rights violations, with agents at the Amado checkpoint subjecting motorists to harassment, intimidation and racial profiling.
Frustrated by the government’s response to their complaints, they embarked last month on a first-of-its-kind “watching the watchers” campaign to restore normality to their lives, deploying volunteers from the community to monitor the Amado checkpoint in hopes of collecting data that will support their claims of unconstitutional and ineffective enforcement.
Residents have also delivered a petition to Manuel Padilla, the head of the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, demanding the immediate removal of the checkpoint, and they are lobbying for a Congressional hearing.
“At great cost to local residents and U.S. taxpayers, the checkpoint on Arivaca Road has resulted in nothing but fear, anger and mistrust, perpetuating the fiction that increased militarization and the creation of ‘constitution free zones’ are the best and only ways to respond to the complex economic and social issues of the borderlands,” the petition said.
Abuse of discretion
Arivaca might appear to be an unlikely candidate for such activism. About 10 miles north of the border and 60 miles southwest of Tucson, it is a ranching community of only 700 people, many of whom are retirees attracted by its solitude and temperate winter climate.
“It’s a very mixed population [ethnically],” Jacobson noted. “That’s one of the wonderful things about it.”
Border tensions have inspired citizen militias supporting hardline immigration policies to sprout up across Southern Arizona. One rancher in Cochise County, Roger Barnett, notoriously turned vigilante, rounding up suspected illegal immigrants at gunpoint, and Arizona is also the state that in 2010 passed Senate Bill 1070, the broadest and strictest anti-illegal immigration law in recent U.S. history.
Arivacans have taken a more humanitarian approach to the immigration problem. Many of them have volunteered for groups such as No More Deaths, the Samaritans and Humane Borders that provide food, water and other aid to medically compromised migrants in the remote Arizona borderlands. No More Deaths operates a field office in Arivaca.
“People here understand that these migrants are in desperate need … that they’re not a nameless mob,” Jacobson said.
In March 2012, residents formed People Helping People, a community organization dedicated to providing support for those giving aid to migrants by, among other things, educating them about how to deal with Border Patrol agents. At the group’s regular meetings, Jacobson recalled, “one common thread” emerged: “Everybody had experience with the [Amado] checkpoint.”
The Border Patrol opened the checkpoint in 2007 to snare illegal immigrants and drug smugglers seeking to bypass a permanent checkpoint nearby on Interstate 19, which connects Tucson to the border town of Nogales, Ariz. As recently as 2009, arrests of illegal immigrants in the Tucson Sector accounted for 45 percent of all arrests along the entire border.
Under a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Border Patrol agents may stop a vehicle at checkpoints within a “reasonable distance” of the border and have “wide discretion” to refer motorists selectively to a secondary inspection area for additional brief questioning. A vehicle can only be searched if there is probable cause or the driver consents.
Checkpoints are “the functional equivalent of the border,” said Denise Gilman, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and co-director of its immigration clinic.
According to Arivaca residents, however, agents at the Amado checkpoint have routinely abused their discretion, stopping Latinos and detaining them longer for no other reason than the color of their skin, searching vehicles without probable cause, and straying onto private property when they pursue suspects.
One Latino who lives about a quarter-mile east of the checkpoint told the Green Valley News that he is routinely hassled by agents as he takes his morning walks.
“Border Patrol checkpoints have profoundly negative impacts on border communities,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona said in a recent administrative complaint asking federal officials to investigate abuses. It cited the case of a former Arivaca business owner who was detained at the Amado checkpoint “on her way to a doctor’s appointment following a heart attack, held for over an hour in the hot sun, not permitted to sit down, and denied water.”
The ACLU also said the checkpoints “often appear to be operated as drug interdiction checkpoints, which are unconstitutional, and not for the limited purpose of verifying residence status.”
People Helping People is providing the volunteers for the monitoring of the Amado checkpoint, which began Feb. 26 and is expected to continue a couple of days each week. The “checkpoint observers,” who work four-hour shifts, include Jacobson and Patty Miller, a 35-year resident of Arivaca.
“It was supposed to be temporary, and years later, it’s still here and every year, they add something to make it ever more permanent,” Miller told the Tucson Sentinel, pointing out a portable building, generators and signs that mark the location.
Jacobson emphasized that the monitoring has a dual purpose — to document abuses and to collect arrest and drug seizure data. The Border Patrol, she noted, only releases data on an aggregate basis for all checkpoints, so “no one really has an idea what [an individual checkpoint is doing for] national security.”
The volunteers record the ethnicity of a vehicle’s occupants, the make and model of the car, the duration of the stop, and whether or not the car is pulled to secondary inspection. During the first day of monitoring, the deputy Border Patrol agent in charge of the Tucson Sector, Lloyd Easterling, showed up at the checkpoint and proposed a town hall meeting between the agency and Arivaca residents.
“We’re done talking, we’ve been doing it for years and we never hear anything new,” Jacobson responded.
Around one-third of Arivaca’s residents signed the petition to Chief Padilla, which also lamented that “a generation of Arivaca children and young people are growing up in this militarized zone, where they are taught by experience that the erosion of civil and human rights, freedoms and quality of life is acceptable.”
Getting the Border Patrol to remove the checkpoint might be a tall order. Padilla has not responded to the petition, even though Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) wrote him in support of it, citing “the severe economic impact on the local residents, the increase in militarization that has proven to increase migrant deaths and numerous violations of the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.”
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, noted in a 2009 report that the Border Patrol had developed measures for assessing the impact of checkpoints on nearby communities but had not used them.
Professor Gilman credits Arivaca residents with raising awareness of the negative impact that ramping up security is having on border areas.
“It feels very militarized to these communities,” she told MintPress.
It may no longer be quite so easy, Gilman suggested, for politicians in Washington to put the “political symbolism” of increased law enforcement ahead of other concerns.
The monitoring of the Amado checkpoint comes at a personal cost.
“It’s difficult,” Jacobson admitted. “It’s a small community and everyone has a job.” But she and other residents of Arivaca are hoping to set an example for other checkpoint-adjacent communities.
“Nothing is going to change in Border Patrol policy if no one has anything to say about it,” Jacobson said.