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In Arizona, Citizens Keep Close Eye On Immigration Checkpoint

Members of the Arivaca, Ariz., community monitor an immigration checkpoint about 25 miles north of the Mexican border. Some residents say border agents go beyond their legal authority.
Ted Robbins
Members of the Arivaca, Ariz., community monitor an immigration checkpoint about 25 miles north of the Mexican border. Some residents say border agents go beyond their legal authority.

Border Patrol checkpoints aren't always near the border. Some aren't even on roads that go to the border. Take Arivaca Road; it's an East-West route 25 miles north of the Mexican border in Southern Arizona.

A Border Patrol checkpoint has been operating there around the clock for seven years. Some residents of the town of Arivaca say agents at the checkpoint go well beyond their legal authority; searching vehicles and questioning citizens without cause. So they've begun their own monitoring — to inspect the process.

Traffic cones and speed bumps force me to a stop at the Arivaca Road checkpoint. I roll down my window and a Border Patrol agent eyes the interior of my car while he asks me a couple of questions, like how I'm doing and whether or not I'm a U.S. citizen.

The exchange is quick and polite. The agent asks me only what he is entitled to ask to determine my immigration status.

Just beyond the checkpoint, four people in bright yellow safety vests are standing by the side of the road, watching everything that happens here.

They tally driver descriptions, license plates and how long each vehicle is stopped. They videotape some stops. Peter Ragan, who lives in the small town of Arivaca, has to stop at the checkpoint every time he comes or goes. He says he's experienced more than inconvenience, and has been illegally searched.

"My vehicle [has] been searched twice," Ragan says. "Once claiming that a drug sniffing dog alerted on it, and once because ... after answering a question about citizenship would not answer personal questions about my vehicle."

Carlota Wray is a naturalized U.S. citizen. She's originally from Mexico, but she's lived in Arivaca for three decades. She carries her passport when she drives through because, she says, agents use racial profiling.

"When they see this color of skin they're going to ask more questions," Wray says. "They're going to search your vehicle just because [you're] Hispanic."

Fifteen U.S. citizens have filed a formal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security. They say they've been searched after dogs alerted to nonexistent drugs, and detained for long, unjustified times.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Border Patrol only has the right to determine someone's immigration status at these checkpoints unless agents have good reason to believe a crime has been committed.

The Border Patrol says checkpoints are valuable enforcement tools. In an email, a spokesman wrote that over the last three years, agents at checkpoints have made more than 6,000 apprehensions and seized more than 135,000 pounds of narcotics.

Those figures, however, are for all 11 checkpoints in Arizona. The agency doesn't release figures for individual checkpoints. That's the other reason Arivaca monitors began collecting their own data. Ragan thinks he knows what the numbers will show.

"Statistics would show, if they were kept properly, that I think that very few immigration apprehensions happen here," he says. "Not much drug interdiction happens here."

The monitors want the Arivaca checkpoint closed. They say it's just one more sign of the permanent militarization of the border region. The Border Patrol says it has no plans to alter operations here.

Some people like the checkpoint. As one woman in a pickup passes through the area, she slows down and opens her window to speak to the unofficial monitors.

"I don't want to be on camera. Is that clear?" the woman says. "I am not in agreement with what you folks are doing, so please don't."

Whether it's government security or government intrusion; either way, everyone stops at the checkpoint.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.