Should We Start Carrying Passports To Travel Within the United States?


Border Patrol checkpoint

For me, last week was a vacation week, spent in San Diego. My family reaches that city on Interstate 8, which lies in what the American Civil Liberties Union calls the "Constitution-free zone" within 100 miles of the United States border. This trip, that meant not one, but two stops at Border Patrol checkpoints (PDF). This time, we had to assure officials of our citizenship at permanent checkpoints instead of at the roving "tactical" checkpoints that appear hither and yon, not that there's much difference from motorists' point of view. After the second stop in the middle of the desert, surrounded by armed men and "working dogs" (as the signs assured us), my wife turned to me and said, "we need to start carrying Tony's passport when we're driving."

Tony is seven, and surrounded though he is in the back seat by Calvin and Hobbes compilations and the latest book in the N.E.R.D.S. series that he's taken to, he has little in the way of legal documentation. True, no Border Patrol officer at an interior checkpoint has yet insisted that I provide proof of his identity, let alone his citizenship, but a stretch of blazing desert highway halfway between wide spot in the road and dead coyote is no place to be surprised. Hence, my wife's new conviction that we really need to start carrying our son's passport so we can display it on demand while traveling within the United States, without ever crossing an international border.

Constitution-free zone

U.S. Customs and Border Protection insists (PDF) that "[a]ll Border Patrol checkpoints operate in accordance with the Constitution of the United States and governing judicial rulings," and they're correct, if you leave room for interpretation and some vigorous wiggling. The Supreme Court has ruled, in cases including United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, that "[a]utomotive travelers may be stopped at fixed checkpoints near the border without individualized suspicion, even if the stop is based largely on ethnicity." The executive branch has interpreted "near" to mean "100 miles" which, I guess, is near enough if you work on a sufficiently large cartographic scale.

The Government Accountability Office clarifies the official position a bit further (PDF):

Border Patrol agents at checkpoints have legal authority that agents do not have when patrolling areas away from the border. The United States Supreme Court ruled that Border Patrol agents may stop a vehicle at fixed checkpoints for brief questioning of its occupants even if there is no reason to believe that the particular vehicle contains illegal aliens. The Court further held that Border Patrol agents "have wide discretion" to refer motorists selectively to a secondary inspection area for additional brief questioning. In contrast, the Supreme Court held that Border Patrol agents on roving patrol may stop a vehicle only if they have reasonable suspicion that the vehicle contains aliens who may be illegally in the United States—a higher threshold for stopping and questioning motorists than at checkpoints.12 The constitutional threshold for searching a vehicle is the same, however, and must be supported by either consent or probable cause, whether in the context of a roving patrol or a checkpoint search.

By the way … "Probable cause?" That's where those "working dogs" come in. As Reason's Jacob Sullum has reported, dogs may not be reliable detectors of contraband, but they are reliable sources of probable cause.

That 100 mile strip is pretty well populated, being full of major cities and densely setted coastal states. The ACLU ran some calculations and reports, "What we found is that fully TWO-THIRDS of the United States' population lives within this Constitution-free or Constitution-lite Zone.   That's 197.4 million people who live within 100 miles of the US land and coastal borders."

Most of those areas aren't subject to routine stops and status checks. That's a special joy generally reserved for residents of the Southwest and some parts of the country bordering Canada. But the federal government's position is that it can impose such checks within 100 miles of the border if it so chooses.

Maybe packing your kids' passports for travel within the United States isn't such a crazy idea. We already have the internal checkpoints; we might as well make sure we all have our papers in order to match.

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  1. Hey! I live in that Zone! And I’ve never even been to Canada.

    1. I live just outside the zone, and I’m offended that I won’t have the same opportunity to proudly display my papers as a loyal subject of King Bushbama.

    2. Never been to Canada? It’s a magical place, full of gumdrops and unicorns and free heatlh care. And they really do end the occasional sentence with “eh, you frigging Yank?”

  2. Zeigen Sie mir Ihre Papiere!

    1. Can’t you just use the shorter ‘Papers please’? I hate wasting so much time at these checkpoints waiting for the guard to go through the spiel.

      1. Papiere bitte?

        1. Danke

  3. Several years ago my wife and I were stopped at a checkpoint just south of Bangor. The guy simply asked if there were an Canadians in the car, we said no, and he let us drive away. But still. Bangor?

    1. You hid the bag od Tim Hortons Donuts right?

    2. 100% of the state of Maine is within that 100 mile zone. So is 100% of Florida.

  4. Because, “Fuck you!” that’s why?

    I’d say “unbelievable”, but it’s totally…expected any more. We’re over the edge and on our way to the history dump. Pretty good run for awhile. Bye, USA!

    1. We’re quickly becoming the countries that we mocked during the Cold War.

      1. Becoming?

      2. We became those countries as we mocked them.

  5. I carry my passport most of the time anyway, because my driver’s license can’t reliably purchase alcohol out of state.

    1. ???

      Unless you have a 1980s Vermont license, I dont see how that is possible.

      1. I’m surprised being Elfen royalty doesn’t carry some sort of diplomatic immunity.

      2. Maybe his last name is McLovin.

    2. I want to see a passport or DL which can purchase booze all on its own. Do they bring it home to you or just go out on a bender?

      1. Usually it just brings it home, but sometimes you’re just waiting an waiting an the damn thing shows up 2 hours later reeking of booze, cigarettes, and cheap perfume with a six-pack of some cheap arse beer and no change.

        And don’t get me started on trying to get an explanation – its all “blah blah fuck you you’re not my real dad”.

  6. I posted this and sent it in to reason a while back but didn’t get much of a response: the CBP is getting involved in searching private planes well within the borders as well:
    An AOPA article from last week about a private pilot who was stopped twice during a cross country trip and had his aircraft invasively searched has generated responses from a number of pilots who have experienced similar searches as well as a non-response from the Customs and Border Patrol, whose agents are suspected of making the stops and searches (the agents did not present identification to the pilot searched).

    From the AOPA’s article, it appears that some pilots have had their planes so intrusively searched that the planes were no longer airworthy after the agents removed components from the planes that,under FAA regulations, must only be reinstalled by licensed Airframe and Powerplant mechanics. This would result in a pilot having to call a licensed mechanic to the airfield where he was stopped to reassemble the airplane according to FAA regulations.

    The AOPA article also states that CBP has acquired access to FAA and military tracking systems they use to identify likely targets for searches (presumably based on their flight plans).

    1. the agents did not present identification to the pilot searched

      So some guys just came up to the plane, didn’t identify themselves or who they worked for, and started tearing things apart? I think my first course of action would have been to call the local PD.

      1. The local PD was there with the agents.

      2. Yeah, every time you posted that I pointed out that the pilot consented to the search.

        1. Not defending the situation, but individuals are compelled to consent to these searches by FAA as a condition of being licensed pilots. The news here is that the CBP and other agencies might be piggybacking on an FAA rule intended primarily to allow for safety inspections and cerification of pilot credentials and aircraft airworthiness certificates. I don’t get why it’s not a big deal to you that the government is possibly abusing this power.

          1. I mean, it’s the equivalent of giving police the power to search a car based on the driver not wearing a seatbelt. The issue is overreach. If a cop pulled you over and the law said you had to consent to a search or lose your license (or at least spend a lot of time and money defending it) would you think it was okay because you “consented” to the search, even though that consent was coerced?

          2. Not defending the situation, but individuals are compelled to consent to these searches by FAA as a condition of being licensed pilots.

            Has the legality of that ever been tested in court?

            1. And it probably wouldn’t stand up today, but had someone taken this to court prior to 2001 you guys might have a useful precedent. Now, youse gots nuttin.

            2. I don’t know about that. I would think so, and it’s not a new regulation as far as I know. It’s a good example of safety regulations being abused to provide a foot in the door.

          3. The regulation only applies to FAA inspectors doing a ramp check, not the jackbooted government thugs du jour.

            1. IIRC, the pilot in one of db’s cited articles pointed this out to the CBP guy, but still let them search. It’s just as bad as the cops tagging along with a city inspector when s/he’s searching for a gas leak or performing another type of administrative search.

              The resources the CBP brought out for one of the searches in db’s articles (in the middle of BFE, Oklahoma) was impressive. Something like a Citation orbiting the field, ~10 CBP and local sheriff’s—most with the full tacticool kit, a separate King Air that a couple of the agents got out of. Basically, the only thing they were missing was the 3rd Armored Division.

              Bad overreach, and I hope AOPA gets enough attention so this can be stopped.

  7. I’m going to start telling people I grew up in some border town.

  8. Say, my whole state falls in that zone. What gives?

    1. You are a suspect ProL, you must be a smuggler living so close to the border. What contraband have you been moving?

      1. Pro Lib’s problem is he dumps his cargo at the first sign of an imperial cruiser.

        1. Well, as long as he can keep ahead of Barack the Hutt, he’ll be fine.

    2. Same here.

    3. Just be ready to prove yourself innocent of any crime that they may accuse you of.

    4. I think that the coastal border area is less well tested in court.

  9. Should We Start Carrying Passports To Travel Within the United States?


    Next question.

  10. Lots of Civil Rights Pron on the internets out there if anyone wants to Google it. Basically, you can just tell them to kiss your ass and refuse to answer any questions and 99% of the time they’ll make up some bullshit excuse why you have to answer and then threaten you and then finally let you go. It’s fun to watch.

    The problem is that 1% of the time when they decide to play tough and hit you with the taser.

    1. Not to mention all of the times you have somewhere to be because you didn’t happen to pad your anticipated trip time with an extra hour.

    2. Yes, I was hoping for a “Am I being detained” story from JD within this article. Somewhat anticlimactic…

    3. The checkpoint outside Sierra Blanca, TX (y’all may know of it from it’s role in busting both Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg) is but another reason to detest that dusty, flyspeck of a speed trap, town.

      Yet another thing we can blame on the War on Some Drugs.

  11. The United States Supreme Court ruled that Border Patrol agents may stop a vehicle at fixed checkpoints for brief questioning of its occupants even if there is no reason to believe that the particular vehicle contains illegal aliens.

    I’d love to hear the twisted interpretation of the Constitution that was used to justify that ruling. I suppose one’s geographic location now constitutes probably cause?

    1. The justification goes like this

      Customs needs to be able to search, freely, anything crossing the border (because FYTW) without being encumbered by things like “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion”

      Sometimes people don’t stop at the border checkpoints when crossing (like when flying into the country or sneaking in) therefore we need a buffer zone to allow the CBP agents to provide defense in depth because FYTW.

      A hundred miles was decided as fair and reasonable because FYTW.

  12. Ran into these fuckers for the first time at a permanent check point near Alamogordo last month. I was on the company dime, so I couldn’t get too outre. But, fuck.

  13. By the way … “Probable cause?” That’s where those “working dogs” come in. As Reason’s Jacob Sullum has reported, dogs may not be reliable detectors of contraband, but they are reliable sources of probable cause.

    They’ve trained their dogs to smell Mexicans?

    1. Taco flavored kisses are a dead giveaway.

  14. Ironically, one of the clich? limey insults of Americans has been, “At least I own a passport.”

    I didn’t own a passport until I was 29 and moved to Europe despite the fact that we lived all over North America place when I was a kid (including Mexico). But hey, Brits have to own passports so they can take package tours of Brit-infested tourist spots so they aren’t provincial like Americans.

    Being able to travel throughout most of a huge continent without showing official government documentation is the height of provincialism, i’nt it?

    1. I got a passport in 1991 to move to Switzerland. It expired in 2001, I didnt get another until 2010.

    2. Sadly, you can’t really do that anymore if you want to leave the US.

      1. Yeah, now the Brits can say that “at least they don’t have to ask for permission to leave their country” – unlike us.

    3. I’ve never had a passport and I’m kinda hoping I’ll never need one.

      1. I still haven’t gotten my six-year-old an American passport despite that fact that he’s qualified for dual citizenship. I’m just not seeing the reason for it. American colleges are ridiculously over-priced, and the US is the only first-world country I know of that has double taxation.

        My mother is absolutely appalled.

        1. We had to get youngest a passport when he was just 5 months old. Because we were traveling to Canada. Via car. For a wedding. Yes; infants now need a passport to drive in to Canada.

          1. Do they need a driver’s license to drive into Canada?

          2. That’s really fucked up progress, think of all the terrorist acts that have been thwarted now that infants are required to have passports.

          3. Is it a full size passport, is it a tiny-sized one?

        2. It’s handy to have if he wants to visit the US. My cousins are dual US and Spanish citizens and they use the passport of the country they are entering when traveling between the two. Makes things go smoothly.

          And on the US double taxation thing, isn’t he stuck with that anyway? Isn’t he a US citizen automatically because you are? I’m sure you know more about this than I, so correct me if I’m wrong.

          1. Yeah it’s handy if he wants to visit the States, but not necessary.

            I don’t see how he could be automatically a US citizen and hence automatically liable for double taxation since he was born and lives abroad. I don’t know anything about it, though, just my assumption.

            1. That’s an interesting question. I suppose he has the right to claim US citizenship at any time. But does that mean that he is automatically a citizen whether he likes it or not?

              If I had to bet on it, I would bet that the US government would claim the right to tax his income regardless (unless he renounces his US citizenship and never visits the US).

              1. Yeah it is an interesting question. But I don’t see how they can make him renounce citizenship which he never claimed in the first place. The main part of renouncing citizenship is giving up your passport, which he never had in the first place.

                He should still be able to travel to the US as a Czech citizen and even study with a student visa, at least theoretically. Not that I’m especially keen for him to do so.

                1. Because you are a US citizen your son is too. When he becomes an adult (18 for the US) he is supposed to claim one passport over the other. Some countries enforce this, some don’t. The US does not push the issue so much – from my experience (lived most of my life in the US within a short drive to the border and been living outside the US for the past 20 years).

                  He doesn’t have to claim US citizenship to have it – he has it automatically. But if he – or you – never identifies himself to the US authorities as a US citizen the point is somewhat moot.

  15. There are only ten states who lie entirely outside the border zone: NV, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.


    1. Kentucky


      But what’s the over/under for when the feds start considering major rivers as a border? Then we’re all fucked.

      1. I would imagine the next step would be to classify inland ports (ie any port on the Missouri which ocean going vessels can reach) as “border”.

        Soon we’re going to need internal passports, just like the Soviet Union used to have.

        1. Mississippi.

    2. I count 13.

  16. Anyone else remember that scene from The Hunt for Red October when Sam Neill’s character gets all excited about not having to show ID when traveling around the States? I guess its a good thing in the end that he got shot.

    1. Vasili: … And drive from state to state. Do they let you do that?
      Ramius: I suppose.
      Vasili: No papers?
      Ramius: No papers, state to state.

  17. This shit really bothers me. If you aren’t driving, there should really be no reason to have to carry ID just to travel around. There is no legal requirement for a citizen to possess ID at all and that is a good thing. That leads me to be convinced that the default assumption must be that anyone who claims to be a citizen, yet who cannot produce proof is in fact a citizen. You don’t have to look a certain way, or speak a certain language to be a citizen.

    This is also the biggest problem I have with the Arizona immigration law and laws like it. If a citizen is the least bit inconvenienced by such a law, it’s no good.

    1. There is no legal requirement for a citizen to possess ID at all and that is a good thing.

      That won’t stop the cops from threatening to throw you in jail for not producing ID on demand.

      “I just want to check to see if you have warrants for your arrest.”
      “Do you have probable cause to believe there are warrants for my arrest?”
      “Fuck you, smart guy. Give me your ID or I’ll take you to jail.”

      1. Don’t carry ID if you don’t need it for a specific reason. That’s what I try to do if I go out walking at night or something. I’m also good at avoiding any interaction with cops, so that helps.

        1. Don’t carry ID if you don’t need it for a specific reason.

          The only problem with that is that if you have no identification, and the cop decides he doesn’t like you for whatever reason, he can have you locked up until your identity can be verified.

          1. That sounds like a load of shit (though I am sure it happens, I’m going all “the way things should be” here). There are people who have no form of ID at all.

            1. All they’ve got to do is make up some “probable cause” to believe you have warrants for your arrest. For example you acted nervous when some guy dressed in black with a club and a gun started interrogating you on the street. The only possible reason for being nervous is doing something wrong. Lacking identification, the only thing the kind officer could do is lock you in a cage until your identity could be determined.

    2. If a citizen is the least bit inconvenienced by such a law, it’s no good.

      That’s the crux of it for me. If a citizen is hindered or inconvenienced in any way it’s a bad practice and should be outlawed. It’s not my job to make it easier and more convenient for cops to do their job.

    3. There shouldn’t be a need to carry ID around *when* driving.

  18. In order, would I want to live in those states?
    No, yes, yes, no, yes, no, no, no, no, no, yes, yes.

  19. Having been stopped IN IOWA for a random warrantless “papieren, bitte” search based (presumably) on driving on an interstate highway in a car with out of state plates, I think you are taking an unnecessarily narrow view of the problem.

    1. I think that’s a distinct problem that police can always make up a reason to stop you and search you if they really want to.

    2. What Zeb said, but you’re always going to be within the jurisdiction of local and state cops. This is about adding federal jurisdiction to much of the US (by population).

  20. It’s worth pointing out here that although the checkpoints are ostensibly “border control”, they are routinely used as a pretext to search people for drugs, including Americans travelling domestically. Those trains dogs are drug sniffing dogs. Once they have you stopped at a checkpoint they take the drugs dogs around and if the dogs smell anything they have a pretext to search your vehicle. This is how Fiona Apple was caught. She wasn’t crossing the US border, she was travelling cross-country in a bus, stopped at a border control checkpoint and a drug dog smelled weed.


      Not just Fiona.

      1. I bet they get really excited when they see the big tour buses coming.

    2. Not just drugs – DUI (you’d be amazed at how many people are drinking while driving across long stretches of empty desert. Or maybe you wouldn’t), expired registration tags too.

  21. Frank Lautenberg has finally finished his run.

    1. Roasting in hell, hopefully.

  22. Just a matter of time until the government issued and required “vacation plan” hits the public. You were traveling out of state without your vacation permit Mr. Smith. May we inspect your vehicle? No?! Well then, looks like my little drug sniffing dog Sparky over there just gave me probable cause to do a body cavity search of your cute wife and daughter.

  23. I’ve been through those checkpoints in northern NH several times. Never answered anything or showed ID, I just said I’m a citizen and they let me through.

    The Border Patrol is ALL OVER some of the town up there. Our deer camp is in the northernmost NH town and I see them on the back roads quite often. Not sure what the hell they’re looking for, they never seem to do anything but park on the side of the road.

    1. they never seem to do anything but park on the side of the road

      So mostly a waste of money. But if anyone complains then they’ll have to make a big show of doing something.

    2. My guess is that they are looking out for backpackers smuggling weed. There are some roads that go right along the border up there. Either that, or they got more budget than they needed and had to find some way to spend it.

      1. Probably. But I can’t remember reading any news about them actually busting anyone up there.

        Last summer I was trout fishing in the area and went to scout some deer hunting areas we use and saw four Border Patrol trucks in a 6 mile stretch of back road. However, the road they were on (Big Brook) is quite a ways from the border. You could conceivably drive up to the border from there but all of the BP trucks were closer to Route 3.

        Anyone wanting to get around them could have easily used other feeder roads and trails to get to the main roads.

  24. I regularly pass through the checkpoint that is pictured in this post (coming up from the Rio Grande Valley on US highway 77). Every time I do, I start my phone recording and put it in the center console with the mic up.

    The whole time, I’m thinking about what to do if they command me to pull over for “secondary questioning”. I so want to tell them that I do not consent to a search and then just sit there, blocking traffic. I will continually ask if I am free to go.

    But, I almost always have the wife and kids with me (in a minivan!), so I’m pretty sure I would turn into a pussy so that I wouldn’t cause them distress. However, they are older now and it would be an awesome lesson. I. Must. Have. Strength. to stand up to tyranny…

    1. Why do you want to get beaten up in front of your family?

  25. You know who else asked citizens to produce their papers?

    1. Judge Dredd?

  26. I carry my passport because it doesn’t show my home address.

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