The time I was detained by the U.S. Border Patrol

Note: I originally posted this on Facebook in January 2014. I’m re-posting it now because I think the existence of these Border Patrol checkpoints deserves more attention than it is getting.

This picture wasn't taken in western Texas. I didn't take any pictures in western Texas because it's western Texas.
This picture wasn’t taken in western Texas. I didn’t take any pictures in western Texas because it’s western Texas.

For those who don’t know, the U.S. now has border patrol checkpoints at various places in the Southwest, many miles away from the Mexican border, where travelers are stopped and asked questions regarding their citizenship before being allowed to continue (the ACLU has referred to these as “Constitution-Free Zones” ). I am currently on a motorcycle trek across the southern U.S., so I’ve run into a couple of these checkpoints.

The first one, a few miles outside El Paso, took me by surprise. An unassuming sign announced “checkpoint ahead,” and I was directed off the road to a tollbooth-like building. I stopped and a uniformed agent asked me if I was a U.S. citizen. I said yes, and he waved me on.

Over the next several hundred miles, I spent some time wondering what the point of a checkpoint was if the person being interrogated wasn’t required to actually prove their citizenship. If you can get through by simply claiming to be a citizen, then what’s the point? 

The answer, of course, is that not everybody can get through that way. Presumably if I had been a brown-skinned man driving a van rather than a white guy on a motorcycle, my claim to citizenship would have been met with more suspicion. That’s the first problem with these checkpoints: they almost inevitably encourage racism among law enforcement agents.

The second problem is that U.S. citizens are guaranteed the right to travel freely within the United States – and that means not having to prove to government agents that you’re a citizen. This is the whole point of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. If you’re not reasonably suspected of a crime, the government has absolutely no right to demand that you answer questions or show identification. Obviously the government has been granted the responsibility of securing the border against “unwanted” persons (which is a whole other issue), but government has no right to molest people traveling within the U.S. 

So when I came upon another checkpoint, near Uvalde, Texas (about 75 miles from the Mexican border), I decided to assert my right to travel unmolested. I pulled up to the uniformed agent and turned off my engine. He asked me whether I was a citizen. I said, “I don’t believe I’m required to answer that.”

He tried a different tack. “Were you born in the United States?”

“I’m not going to answer that either,” I said.

He told me I needed to answer the question. I told him I had the right to travel unmolested, and asked if I could continue on my way. He said he couldn’t let me go until he had determined whether I was a citizen. 

I asked whether I was being detained. He said yes, they were going to detain me until they could determine if I was a citizen. 

I asked if I had committed a crime. He said yes. I replied, with some measure of surprise and amusement, “Really! What crime have I committed? Is it a felony or a misdemeanor?”

He didn’t answer. He asked me to move my bike out of the way so the car behind me could get through. I did so. I turned off the engine again, removed my helmet, and pulled out my phone (this is when I attempted to begin recording, but must have hit the wrong button, because I only got about 5 seconds of video). By the time I had gotten my phone out, three agents had approached, with their hands hovering near their guns. A couple other men were standing farther away, also looking in my direction.

Also not western Texas.
Also not western Texas.

A second agent asked me if I was a citizen. I told him that I respectfully refused to answer the question. When he saw that I was apparently recording our exchange, he prominently displayed his name tag to let me know he wasn’t afraid of being identified. For the next few minutes, the two agents performed a sort of good cop/good cop routine on me, with predictable results: I continued to refuse to answer any questions. You see, here’s what these agents don’t want you to know: they aren’t really empowered to do anything but ask you questions. (I mean, according to a bullshit judicial decision, they could search me and confiscate my electronics if they really wanted to be dicks, but I was in no hurry and I kind of want a new laptop anyway.) So they couldn’t really threaten me with anything but wasting my time, and by my count I was occupying three of their agents, so by my assessment I was winning the time-wasting game.

They tried just about every tactic they could think of to get me to answer their questions. One of them told me that they understood that I had a problem with the checkpoints, but that if I wanted to do something about it, I should write my congressman. I told him I’d done that already, and he said, “You’ve written your congressman?” Realizing that he was trying to trick me into answering the question about my citizenship, I said, “I’ve used every legal means at my disposal to protest these checkpoints.” 

The other guy asked me if I believed in the Constitution, and I said that I believed that I had the right to travel within the country unmolested. He said, “Well, we’re enforcing the Constitution too.” I replied, “Really? What part of the Constitution are you enforcing?” He muttered something about a Supreme Court ruling that gave them the right to ask these questions. I told him he could ask all the questions he wanted, but I wasn’t going to answer.

The first guy asked me if I knew where I was. I told him I thought I was in the United States, but it was hard to tell. I told him that I hadn’t crossed any border and that they had no reason to suspect me of any crime, so they had no right to stop me. He told me again that they were just doing their job, and that while he sympathized with my point of view, “this isn’t the way” to protest the policy. I told him that I had no personal animosity against him, but that I had the right to travel unmolested and would not be answering any questions.

Still no.
Still no.

At this point, I had a captive audience of three federal agents, so I decided to have a little fun. I noted that we were nearly a hundred miles away from the border, so if I were in the country illegally, then border patrol had already screwed up pretty badly. “So you’ve failed to stop people at the border who aren’t supposed to be here, and now you’re trying to fix that mistake. And that’s your problem, not mine.”

He asked me who I thought should be in the country. I replied, “You’re asking my personal opinion? Let everybody in. What do I care?” I don’t think this was the response he was hoping for.

Finally he said, “Well, from the remarks you’ve made, I’m going to conclude that you are a U.S. citizen. So you can continue on your way, Robert.” He made a point of using my name, indicating that they had run my license plate. And in the end, that’s what this exchange was all about: making sure I understood who was in charge.

I put on my helmet, started the bike, and gave the group of agents a friendly wave as I got back on the road. And that was that.

Several people have asked me whether I was nervous during this exchange. I was a little, at first. But it became very clear to me that these guys were not at all comfortable with what they were doing, and they didn’t really know how to handle someone who didn’t follow the established script. All they wanted to do was get me out of there with as minimal loss of face as possible. These weren’t bad guys; they were professional and respectful the whole time. Basically they were kids; the oldest one was probably in his late 20s.

Honestly, I’m not what you’d call a particularly outspoken or aggressive person in real life, but it wasn’t at all difficult for me to take control of the situation, given the uncertainty these guys evinced. They were clearly making things up as they went along. When one approach didn’t work, they’d try another. I can only imagine how terrified they’d have been if I’d spent some time brushing up on the case law regarding these checkpoints and really put them on the defensive. As it was, it wasn’t even necessary; I could tell they’d pretty much given up as soon as they couldn’t answer the question about what “crime” I had supposedly committed. By the end of the exchange, I was more amused than afraid.

Did I accomplish anything by refusing to answer their questions? Not really. But I think it’s a healthy exercise to refuse to comply with an arbitrary authority figure once in a while. And I’ll tell you this: given the amount of manpower it took to detain me for ten minutes, if one person in ten refused to answer their questions, these checkpoints would be completely untenable. They’d either have to increase their staff tenfold or let traffic back up for miles. The whole premise of these checkpoints is that 99.9% of people are sheep. Something to think about the next time you pass through one of these checkpoints.

3 Comments on The time I was detained by the U.S. Border Patrol

  1. It’s definitely something to think about. To use a much sillier example, I think about it when the guys at Best Buy ask to see my receipt as I leave, something that I’m pretty sure (?) I don’t have to show them. My wife is a lot more prickly than I am about refusing stuff like that, but I’m getting more aggressive about it, because I think that it’s the minor inconveniences that slowly change the culture around us until the ideas behind them start to become the new norm. At any rate, well done. I feel bad for the officers, except for the “Robert” dig.

    • Steven – Thanks for your comment. I’m a lot more understanding about private businesses doing things like that, because I can choose not to shop there if I don’t like it. I can’t very well choose not to travel on roads. And the crazy part about this is that I hadn’t crossed a border: I was 75 miles from the border when this happened. If they can stop me there for no reason, why not anywhere?

  2. I always wondered the same thing about sobriety checkpoints. If you’re not exhibiting any erratic driving, how is it legal for them to stop you?

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