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Life in the Constitution-Free Zone

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U.S. Border Patrol agents at a Detroit Bus Station

Since 9/11 I’ve noticed a recurring theme in the discussions I’ve had with people up and down the Texas-Mexico border.

The conversations go something like this “I’ve lived here for 50 years but every few months our town gets some new Border Patrol agents coming in who pull me over, search my car and put the drug sniffing dogs through my car. They treat me like I’m a criminal in my own hometown.”

One longtime border resident recently described an incident to me after he passed through the Sierra Blanca immigration checkpoint east of El Paso. He said he was sent to secondary inspection where he was surrounded by seven Border Patrol agents. The agents put a drug-sniffing dog in his car. “One of the agents was wound so tight, he had his hand on his gun and I told the other agents ‘get this guy away from me. He’s wound too tight. He’s going to shoot someone’.”

None of these residents is against having border agents in their towns. Border Patrol has been a part of border life for decades. Prior to 9/11, many agents were recruited from border communities and had deep roots in the region. The push after 9/11, however, to vastly increase the number of agents meant the federal government would have to recruit from outside the border regions.

Since 2000, the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled along the southern border from 8,580 agents to 20,119 agents by 2009. The northern border saw a similar increase from 300 agents to 2,069 agents during the same time period.

The Border Patrol’s high 10 percent attrition rate means that agents cycle in and out of border communities. They often view living in the region as a hardship. The massive increase in agents is amplified in border communities by a growing militarization along the border. In Washington D.C., politicians relentlessly call for more “boots on the ground” and unmanned drones. Texas Ag Commissioner Todd Staples — a hopeful for the Lt. Governor’s race in 2014 — even commissioned two retired Army generals to do a strategic military assessment of the U.S.-Mexico border. The assessment recommended turning border counties into “sanitary tactical zones.” And then there’s the 700 mile-long border wall running through people’s backyards on the southern border.

In short, what people tell me is that living along our nation’s borders these days is somewhat like living in an occupied zone. It’s not so much like the United States anymore as a grey area, a liminal space that the ACLU has dubbed the “Constitution-Free Zone.” This is a 100-mile wide zone that wraps around the external boundary of the United States. In the border zone, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects Americans from arbitrary stops and searches, does not apply, according to the ACLU. “Authorities do not need a warrant or probable cause to conduct a ‘routine search’,” says the group.

Turns out the northern border has similar complaints about the behavior of Border Patrol agents in their communities. They are forming a coalition to do something about it. In September, community and immigration rights advocates in the northern border states formed the Northern Border Coalition. Recently, they submitted a petition to Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection, asking that the federal agency:

 “…Take steps to ensure that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) exercise its discretion in a manner that is consistent with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) enforcement priorities and which meets constitutional safeguards. As funding for CBP has soared, the agency’s enforcement activity has drifted inland, often times many miles from the border or any point of entry. As this enforcement activity within 100 miles of the border has increased, so too have questionable practices that violate constitutional rights and standards. Such enforcement tactics do little to protect the border, and worse, they threaten constitutional protections that apply to citizens and immigrants alike, by inviting racial profiling, tearing apart families and burdening taxpayers with the cost ofdetaining individuals who pose no threat to our national security.”

Ruth Lopez, spokesperson for the coalition, says the goal is to get U.S. Customs and Border Protection to listen to border communities. “We want to create a unified plan and find ways to engage with CBP and have a conversation about what’s going on in our communities,” she says. Lopez cites many cases where it appears border agents have targeted people for searches and interrogations based on their race or religion, especially Muslims. The number of deaths perpetrated by Border Patrol agents against civilians also increased by 150 percent between 2008 to 2010 (the most current government data available). In 2010, agents killed five people and wounded eight. While in 2009, two people were killed and 11 wounded. In 2008, one person was killed and six wounded.

Lopez says it’s not uncommon for Border Patrol to respond to 9-1-1 calls alongside local law enforcement, engendering fear and sometimes anger among border community residents. She cites as an example a family birthday party in Nooksack, Washington, in 2011. A little girl had fallen in the driveway. Her mother called 9-1-1 asking for an ambulance. An ambulance, firefighters, the sheriff, and Border Patrol responded. While paramedics treated the girl, the border agents walked around the party asking people for their names and personal information.

Next week, the coalition will have its first conference in Detroit, Michigan, and on February 28th a “We are the Border” National Day of Action to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Alex Martinez, a U.S. citizen in Washington State who was shot and killed by U.S. Border Patrol agents and local law enforcement.

The southern border isn’t far behind in organizing its own coalition, Lopez says. A Southern Border Coalition is also being formed in San Diego, California. Delegates from the southern border will be in Detroit next week to swap notes and join the call to protect the individual liberties and rights of border residents. Let’s hope Washington D.C. will listen.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.