During the last week of July, I was arrested in California, handcuffed, strip-searched, photographed, fingerprinted, and jailed for more than seven hours by the U.S. Border Patrol. My wife was subjected to all the same indignities. Our seven-year-old son was arrested, photographed, and jailed right along with us, though he was spared the handcuffs, the strip-search, and the fingerprinting. Our car was seized, and we were told we would not be allowed to reclaim it.
What had we done to bring this down on ourselves? We had picked up our 25-year old Mexican housekeeper, Ana, in San Diego and driven north on Interstate Highway 5 toward our home in Orange, California, a suburban community about 35 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Ana had spent the weekend in Mexico with her fiance and had reentered the United States that morning. When she reached San Diego, she had called to let us know where she was, and we had driven the 85 miles down to give her a ride home.
What we didn't reckon with was "Checkpoint Charlie," the permanent roadblock the Immigration and Naturalization Service operates on I-5 about 100 miles north of the border. The official reason for having a Border Patrol checkpoint so far north of the border is to catch Mexican nationals who are trying to violate the terms of their tourist visas. Such visas entitle the bearer to visit the United States, but only within 100 miles of the border. Many Mexicans obtain such visas, however, and travel beyond the 100-mile limit, whereupon they disappear into the Latino areas of cities like Los Angeles, where finding them is like finding a needle in a haystack.
Ana possessed such a tourist visa, but it had been canceled the day before, when she had attempted to enter the United States through Nogales (south of Tucson, Arizona). The Border Patrol had searched her purse and found an airline ticket that would have taken her from Tucson to Orange County's John Wayne Airport about 10 miles from our home. Now, therefore, she was an "illegal alien." And we were guilty of "transporting" her and of "aiding and abetting" her flight from the border, which she had illegally crossed.
We had not known that it was illegal to "transport" an illegal alien—that is, to give an undocumented person a ride from one place in the United States to another. Since our arrest, we've been able to find only one person who did know it was illegal before hearing our story.
In the Los Angeles area, illegal aliens make up a substantial part of the adult work force. In Orange County, according the the Los Angeles Times, one adult worker in 10 is an illegal alien. And every day of the week, Monday through Friday, the contractors who employ those aliens on construction sites, in orchards, and in farmers' fields pick them up on street corners to transport them to their jobs. They are never arrested for doing so. But we were.
The question, of course, is why anyone should be arrested for helping an immigrant enjoy a better life. Ana regarded the salary she received for working in our home and caring for our children as more than generous. She in no way felt exploited by us. In fact, she regarded us as her benefactors. And we regarded her as a member of our family. She had a particularly close and loving relationship with our seven-year-old son, who was deeply hurt when she was taken from us.
We considered the work Ana did in return for her salary completely satisfactory. Both parties to the bargain were happy with what they got out of it. What business had government—or anyone else—to interfere with our entirely voluntary transaction? Why is our government using violence to prevent capitalist acts among consenting adults? Whose rights did we violate? Whom did we damage?
Those who want to see our immigration laws better enforced—those who speak of the need to "protect the integrity of our borders"—often accuse illegal immigrants of entering this country in order to collect welfare. But Ana—and all the other illegals I have known over the years—had done no such thing. On the contrary, she had come here at some expense and not inconsiderable danger to herself in order to earn her living and help support the members of her family in Mexico. The work she did was work no native American would do at a price her employers could afford to pay. Whose rights did she violate? Whom did she damage?
In the end, she was deported and warned not to come back. (She was back, however, within three weeks—back in this country, but not back in our home, where we all fear the Border Patrol might come looking for her.)
We were charged with one felony count and one misdemeanor count of violating U.S. immigration laws. But our attorney talked the federal prosecutor into offering us a "deferred prosecution." If we maintain a clean record for one year—if we are neither arrested nor charged with any violations of local, state, or federal laws for that length of time—the charges against us will be dropped and the $1,000 bond we were required to post will be returned to us. Meanwhile, we have lost a close friend and valued employee, we have lost several thousand dollars in legal fees and other expenses, our young son has been needlessly traumatized, and we have been brutalized by government thugs.
Your income taxes at work.
Contributing editor Jeff Riggenbach is an editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register and a regular guest columnist for USA Today.