A version of this story ran in the May 2014 issue.
Last year, I looked into the issue of motorists declining to answer questions at interior Border Patrol checkpoints in Texas. Many believe the checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. In any case, you generally don’t have to answer Border Patrol agents when you’re at these internal checkpoints. If an agent has probable cause to think you’re in the country illegally—and refusing to answer their questions isn’t probable cause—the agent can briefly detain you. A fascinating case in Brownsville has put this issue to the test.
Omar Figueredo, 28, grew up in Brownsville and attends graduate school in Ithaca, New York. He visited Brownsville last year with his partner, 31-year-old Nancy Morales. The couple declined to answer questions from Border Patrol agents at the Brownsville airport, leading to their arrest.
Born in Mexico to an American mother, Figueredo spent the majority of his childhood in Brownsville hiding in shame, believing that he was undocumented. After completing his permanent residency as a teen, he found out he should have been recognized as a citizen long ago.
Figueredo says, “That was the moment when I said, ‘This is all bullshit.’ I’m shelling out money to lawyers and paying money to the INS to process this. It’s a whole industry. There are redundancies and errors all the time.”
Figueredo secured his citizenship a few years ago but, he says, “The culture of fear, the intimidation and harassment from Border Patrol is so entrenched. You’re lying if you say that you don’t feel vulnerable or nervous in any way.”
As if to reinforce that sentiment, three days before the airport incident, Figueredo, his mother and Morales were pulled over in Brownsville. The Border Patrol agents demanded to see identification and to know what they were doing. When Figueredo refused to answer their questions, the two agents threatened to call the local police. Figueredo refrained from answering, but the women complied with the officers so that they could get on their way.
These experiences were on Figueredo’s mind when he and Morales arrived at the airport in Brownsville the morning of March 26, 2013. They were approached by Border Patrol agents near security. When he and Morales refused to answer questions about their status, the agents barred them from proceeding to the security screening. The couple missed the flight.
They were re-booked on a later flight but were again quizzed by the Border Patrol. This time, when they refused to answer, they were arrested—not by the Border Patrol, but by a Brownsville police officer.
Figueredo was charged with three misdemeanors: failure to identify, which under Texas law applies only when a person being lawfully arrested refuses to give a peace officer his or her name, birth date or address; resisting arrest; and obstructing a passageway. Morales also was charged with obstructing a passageway and interfering with public duty.
The prosecutors dropped all Figueredo’s charges except obstructing a passageway, a Class B misdemeanor. On April 7, he went on trial, which yielded a hung jury. The prosecution now wants to consolidate Figueredo’s case with Morales’ and hold just one trial.
Figueredo’s lawyer, Virginia Raymond, explains that both Figueredo’s and Morales’ cases have been reduced to a question of who was standing where and for how many seconds. “Clearly obstruction was not his purpose,” Raymond says. “Based on the police report, there’s no crime. People walked around him to get on the plane, and there’s no allegation that he even touched anyone.”
Of course, there are bigger issues here. Are local law enforcement officers now the lackeys of an ever-expanding homeland security apparatus? Do U.S. citizens have a right to go about their business without Border Patrol harassment, or are they subject to arrest every time they decline to show papers or answer questions? In Brownsville, and in hundreds of communities on this side of the border, citizens must submit to requests from immigration authorities for personal information such as their legal status and reasons for traveling. Most people just give up their rights and answer these personal questions so they can go on with their lives.
Only a few folks such as Figueredo and Morales are willing to endure the fiasco involved in standing up for their rights.
Let’s hope the Cameron County Attorney’s office drops these farcical charges. If anyone did wrong here, it was Border Patrol.