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Arivaca residents now monitoring second Border Patrol checkpoint

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Arivaca residents now monitoring second Border Patrol checkpoint

  • Members of the group People Helping People write down observations about the Border Patrol checkpoint on Arizona 286 as part of an effort to monitor how agents interact with drivers coming north from the Buenos Aires wildlife refuge.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comMembers of the group People Helping People write down observations about the Border Patrol checkpoint on Arizona 286 as part of an effort to monitor how agents interact with drivers coming north from the Buenos Aires wildlife refuge.
  • Carlotta Wray, left and Liza Corr, sit just behind a barrier and watch how Border Patrol agents interact with drivers coming through the Arizona 286 checkpoint Thursday.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comCarlotta Wray, left and Liza Corr, sit just behind a barrier and watch how Border Patrol agents interact with drivers coming through the Arizona 286 checkpoint Thursday.

After two years of observing a checkpoint on the road to Arivaca, a group of the town's residents are expanding their monitoring campaign to State Route 286.

Beginning on Wednesday, volunteers from the group People Helping People in the Borderlands set up shop just north of the checkpoint with binoculars, video cameras and clipboards to record the interactions between Border Patrol agents and people driving north from the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

The 117,000-acre habitat is south of Three Points, southwest of Tucson near the U.S.-Mexico border. A notorious drug-trafficking triangle lies on the other side of the border, near the Mexican town of Sasabe.

Since February 2014, members of the group have observed the BP checkpoint on Arivaca Road, just outside of Amado, in response to long-term complaints from residents that it was the site of harassment and racial profiling. Now, the group has spread their observations efforts to the checkpoint on SR 286, which straddles the only other road out of Arivaca, a tiny rural community of around 700 people located about 11 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

From their posts along the highway just north of the checkpoint, the monitors make observations on clipboards, marking the time each vehicle gets to the checkpoint, estimating the race of those in the car, and watching to see if the drivers are sent to a secondary inspection area just past the checkpoint.

On Wednesday, the group came to the checkpoint unannounced and were able to get close to the inspection point, where cars are stopped. There, they could record the interactions between agents and drivers, as well as hear the questions asked by the agent.

However, Thursday afternoon the group arrived to find that agents at the checkpoint had erected barriers, running rope from the barbed wire fences that line parallel the highway to signs that said "no unauthorized entry beyond this point."

Peter Ragan, an Arivaca resident and one of the observers, shook his head and said he wasn't surprised to see that Border Patrol had pushed the group back, creating what Supervisory Agent William Partian called an "enforcement zone." Partain said that the enforcement zone was necessary for "public safety" and the privacy of people driving through the checkpoint.

“They don’t want us here,” said Ragan. 

Border Patrol agents did the same thing when the group began its observation efforts on Arivaca Road in 2014, but on Thursday, Partian said that other checkpoints were outfitted overnight with similar barriers, including the checkpoint on SR 86.

In Arivaca, the enforcement zone was only the first step. Over time observers faced additional resistance from agents at the checkpoint, who parked idling vehicles near the group, blocking their view and exposing them to exhaust fumes. Ragan, and Leesa Jacobson, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, filed a complaint with Border Patrol and its umbrella agency, the Department of Homeland Security, accusing the agency of interfering with their First Amendment rights.

In November 2014, Ragan and Jacobson filed suit in federal court and are awaiting a ruling from Judge Bruce G. MacDonald.

“We’ve been planning to expand to this checkpoint since we started,” said Ragan. “This is the other way for people in Arivaca to get out to services, and we have to constantly go through this experience.”

Ragan said that he’s been stopped repeatedly by agents at the checkpoint, and that agents routinely ask questions beyond Ragan’s citizenship. “They’ll ask me where I’m going, what I’m doing in Arivaca. It’s frustrating.”

The ability for agents to stop people at checkpoints inside the interior of the United States was settled in 1976 by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte.

The court ruled that the stops are not a violation of drivers’ constitutional rights so long as the stops are brief, and drivers and passengers are only required to answer brief questions that are “routine and limited into residence status.” The court also ruled that local residents should be “waved through” checkpoints without inquiry.

“But, our experience is that local people often face additional scrutiny,” Ragan said.

Citing the lawsuit by Ragan and Jacobsen, Border Patrol officials would not comment on the new observation efforts.

Border Patrol has defended the practice of checkpoints in Arizona, calling them “critical piece of infrastructure and a highly effective tool in our enforcement efforts to secure the nation’s borders.”

"U.S. Border Patrol traffic checkpoints are a critical enforcement tool for carrying out the mission of securing our nation’s borders against transnational threats. Checkpoints deny transnational organizations major routes of ingress from the borders to the interior of the United States,” said an agency spokeswoman.

However, according to apprehensions statistics in 2013, apprehensions made at Tucson Sector checkpoints accounted for less than one percent of those arrested by the agency. That same year, nine out of 23 Tucson Sector checkpoints did not arrest "deportable subjects," or immigrants in the country without authorization.

There is no precise count of the number of checkpoints in the United States, which includes established checkpoints like the one on Interstate 19 near Amado, and tactical checkpoints like those on Arivaca Road and SR 286. 

However, the Arizona Republic and the ACLU has estimated there are 173 checkpoints nationwide. 

At the checkpoint Thursday, Carlotta Wray and Jolene Montana mark the arrival of another vehicle at the checkpoint. Wray has been a long-time observer of the Arivaca checkpoint, and on Wednesday morning she was excited to begin working.

“I used to be afraid to go through a checkpoint,” Wray said. “But, I’ve learned my rights and I’ve learned to stand up.” Wray said that when she goes through the Arivaca checkpoint, she brings a camera and records her interactions with Border Patrol agents.

Thursday morning, Wray said she was reminded of why she wants to keep observing the checkpoints, because when she drove through with Montana, agents at SR 286 stopped her and asked her where she was from.

"I’m a citizen,” she said. “I went through the legal process, I stood in line and yet, they act like I just crossed the border and left my backpack somewhere in the desert. I was so hurt and insulted.”

Over time, Ragan said the group has compiled hundreds of hours in observations, noting that Latino drivers remain far more likely than white drivers to be asked for identification.

In October 2014, after months of observations, the group released a report that Latino drivers were 26 times as likely to be asked for identification than white drivers. This pattern, Ragan said has continued throughout the year.

Montana nods, and said that in the Tohono O’ogham Nation, which begins just four miles to the west, there is no accountability for Border Patrol agents operating on the nation’s land. “The agents are always pushing us, we can’t cross through our land without being asked where we’re from. We’re from here. We live here, they don’t,” Montana said.

Last October, the ACLU released its own report the group said documented 142 cases of civil rights abuses at checkpoints in California and Arizona, and accused the agency of being lackadaisical when it came to investigating potential abuses.

On Thursday afternoon, a steady stream of Border Patrol vehicles head south through the checkpoint.

Coming north was a mixture of vehicles with Mexican licenses plates from the border town of Sasabe, locals from Arivaca taking the western route, and tourists visiting the wildlife refugee. Everyone passed through without incident, except for two tourists from Massachusetts who stop to see pictures of a hawk taken by one of the Border Patrol agents.

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