Activists continue protests against BP checkpoint
Vowing to stage a "sit-in" to highlight their frustration with a Border Patrol checkpoint on Arivaca Road, west of Interstate 19, more than 100 protesters surged toward the site Wednesday, and were turned away by a waiting phalanx of nearly two dozen Border Patrol agents.
Starting at 10 a.m., the protest was part of a regional "day of action" intended to highlight problems with Border Patrol policies across the Arizona-Mexico border, including what they call the "militarization and expansion of the border zone."
Despite a few tense moments, including a shoving match between activists and agents, the three-hour protest ended peacefully and no one was arrested. The group was halted just outside the checkpoint, and blocked traffic briefly before holding what they called a "public hearing" to review their concerns about the site.
Pima County Sheriff's deputies arrived just as the protest began. They announced that they would issue citations and make arrests if protesters continued to block traffic, but that the group had a right to protest. Later, a deputy passed through the checkpoint but did not stop.
The checkpoint, which straddles a two-lane highway on the main road for residents in the small town of Arivaca, has been the focus of protests and actions for nearly two years, including a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Arizona.
Residents have argued that the checkpoint, 25 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, is the site of civil rights violations, including unconstitutional searches and seizures, racial profiling and excessive use of force. In February 2014, the group People Helping People launched a campaign to observe and report on the behavior of agents at the checkpoint. Agents pushed back and the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of two Arivaca residents against the agency, citing violations of the First Amendment.
Meanwhile, the group continued to observe and in October published a report that claims Latino drivers are 26 times more likely to be asked for identification than white drivers.
A spokeswoman for Border Patrol defended the agency in October, saying that "officers and agents are trained to recognize people and situations that present a potential threat or violation of law without regard to race."
The agency "does not tolerate racial profiling or agent misconduct and appropriately investigates allegations of wrongdoing," she said.
Border Patrol has repeatedly defended the use of checkpoints along the southern border, calling them a "critical enforcement tool" that helps the agency "establish an important second layer of defense" against smugglers.
This argument was repeated by Manuel Padilla Jr., chief patrol agent for the Tucson Sector, who spoke to the press before the protest Wednesday.
"It's very difficult to stop all the incoming traffic because of terrain," Padilla said. "We need the checkpoints to provide a kind of defense-in-depth and give us time to make arrests and seizures."
Padilla said he understood the protesters' arguments and hoped to engage in a constructive dialogue to help people understand why the checkpoint was necessary and find common ground.
As part of a community dialogue, Kristen Randall who has lived in Arivaca for six years, said that the presence of the checkpoint changed who she was and how she acted.
"I have to make sure my car is clean, my clothes aren't shabby, that my face or actions don't give agents a reason to stop me." she said.
Randall said that once a Border Patrol handler allowed a dog to search her car, and while the dog remained fixed on what ultimately turned out to be a child's lunchbox, the agent said she was allowed to leave only because "We didn't find it."
Randall said that later her family opened the car's trunk to discover that Christmas presents had been "torn open" by agents during the search.
"I've found that my rights are not as important as they would be in other parts of the country," she said.
Maggie Milinovich, an Arivaca resident, said that the checkpoint was driving young people away from the town.
"We used to have a vibrant community, but now things are closing," she said, noting that the art collective had to seek donations, while a coffee shop and restaurant were open only a few days a week — signs of a town slowly collapsing in on itself.
As the protest was underway, Arivaca resident John Beavers drove through the checkpoint and told reporters that he supported it.
"We need this here," he said.
A woman in a white Chevrolet truck drove through the checkpoint repeatedly and told protesters to "get the hell out of here."
The protest was in part an effort to help U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva push for a hearing on the negative aspects of the checkpoint.
In 2014, Grijalva sent a letter to Arivaca residents saying that he supported their petition to eliminate the checkpoint and was working to "push for further consideration of a removal." However, a hearing has not been set.