How Immigration Crackdowns Screw Up Americans' Lives
The war on immigration has taken a great toll on unauthorized aliens, its targets. But it is also badly affecting Americans themselves, its intended beneficiaries.
On the eve of his release after serving a five-year sentence in El Paso, Texas, for assault, Lorenzo Palma got some bad news. Just as the 40-year-old was about to be paroled in 2014, immigration authorities whisked him away to yet another cell in Huntsville, Texas. This time he found himself in a detention center—a glorified term for a prison where immigrants, authorized and unauthorized, are warehoused pending deportation.
This turn of events took Palma by surprise. He is an American citizen who has lived his entire life in this country and has no accent. His mother went to Mexico for her delivery to be near her family, so he never acquired a U.S. birth certificate. But that hadn't been a problem until he was suddenly asked to provide proof of citizenship—from behind bars.
His late grandfather Lazaro Palma's U.S. birth certificate, the only thing he could get his hands on to back up his citizenship claim, wasn't enough. Apparently, Lorenzo also needed to prove that Lazaro had lived in the country for five years after Lazaro turned 17 in order to validate his own claim of citizenship. That proved virtually impossible for Palma to arrange while in detention, especially since he was not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer—immigration is considered a civil rather than criminal matter—and he was too poor to hire one himself.
Palma's case is not unique. Jacqueline Stevens, a political scientist at Northwestern University and an expert on deportation law, estimates that in 2010 alone, over 4,000 U.S. citizens were detained or deported as aliens. Between 2003 and 2010, more than 20,000 Americans suffered the same fate. At any given time, Stevens maintains, about 1 percent of the inmates in immigration detention nationwide are American citizens. That figure may sound unbelievable, but in fact it is a conservative estimate.
In principle, it is illegal for immigration authorities to detain U.S. citizens, much less deport them. But the reality is very different, Stevens says. Once someone is swept into the Kafkaesque nightmare of the immigration system, they are effectively assumed illegal until proven otherwise. What's more, the standard due process protections that are afforded to ordinary criminals aren't extended to suspected illegal immigrants. As Palma learned, people accused of a civil offense aren't entitled to court-appointed lawyers. Worse, suspected illegal immigrants aren't typically accorded individual trials. Instead, overworked immigration judges often hold mass hearings where they rubber-stamp the recommendations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys.
Deportation is arguably a more severe punishment than mere imprisonment since it lasts a lifetime. It is a kind of "legal death," Stevens argues, where Americans are stripped of their rights and exiled to another country. She has documented many cases where citizens, who have lives and loving families in the U.S., are forced to live as destitutes in foreign countries. In one instance, she discovered a homeless American in Mexico bathing in the Tijuana River and rummaging through garbage to feed himself. She tracked another American drifting among shelters in various Latin American countries. "In a surreal reversal," says Stevens, "there are even Americans trying to eke out a living as day laborers in Mexico."
Although the U.S. has been illegally deporting citizens for over a century, the number started soaring when Congress eliminated the right to judicial review for criminal aliens in the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The idea was to remove the barriers to ejecting immigrants who posed a danger to Americans. But the result was a general weakening of legal protections and the rise of an unaccountable immigration bureaucracy that itself has become a danger to Americans.
Lorenzo Palma got incredibly lucky. He was moved from the docket of Judge Richard Walton, known for his impatience with such cases, to that of Judge Saul Greenstein, who actually took Palma's claim of being an American citizen seriously. But what really changed his fate was that on the day he appeared before Greenstein, Stevens was in the courtroom watching the proceedings for research purposes. Greenstein asked if she'd be willing to help Lorenzo, and she did. She put him in touch with a pro bono immigration attorney who helped arrange the requisite paperwork. Two years after Lorenzo was put in detention, he finally became a free man.
"I'm blessed that I'm out," Palma told NPR. "I'm blessed for the people that helped me. I'm blessed, but I feel that the system is not on the right track. They just do whatever they want to do to you."
While the deportation of American citizens is the most egregious outcome of an overzealous immigration crackdown, millions of citizens are getting caught in the government's dragnet in other ways too. And things are likely to get worse before they get better. Indeed, if President Donald Trump keeps on his aggressive anti-immigration path, he will fundamentally shift the balance of power between the government and its citizens. He may not be able to overcome the economic forces that bring unauthorized aliens to America's shores. But he will erode the economic and civil liberties of ordinary Americans, leaving few immune from the long tentacles of the immigration enforcement regime.
Fear of Illegals
At the turn of this century, thanks partly to 9/11 and partly to an influx of migrants from Mexico, American anxieties crystallized around the threat allegedly posed by undocumented immigrants. This fear brought with it an increased willingness to tolerate incursions on the rights and liberties of Americans in the name of catching people who entered or remained in the country illegally.
The vast majority of these people did not come here to commit terrorist acts or even petty crimes. They came to work. The wave of immigration tapered off in 2008, almost entirely for economic reasons.
But the preoccupation with finding and deporting undocumented immigrants only intensified with the economic anxieties of the Great Recession. And then Donald Trump swept into the White House promising to escalate the war on illegal immigration to previously unimaginable levels. "Anyone who is in the United States illegally is subject to deportation," he declared during his campaign, pledging to restore the notorious Eisenhower-era program Operation Wetback, which rounded up Mexicans and ejected them from the country.
Since assuming office, Trump has doubled down on his calls to build a wall on the southern border. He has tried to ban travel from several Muslim-majority countries, backed a plan to slash family-based immigration, and demanded "extreme vetting" of all foreigners.
But the most insidious weapon in Trump's anti-immigration arsenal is "interior enforcement." It sounds innocuous, as if it's some kind of program aimed at conserving wildlife. But it actually involves cleansing the country of the 11 million unauthorized aliens settled inside America by targeting them wherever they live or work. Public opinion on the strategy is divided, but most Americans, especially white native-borns, don't imagine that it will have any impact on them.
They are wrong. There is no way for the government to conduct the policy equivalent of drone strikes and cleanly remove millions of immigrants from the midst of America without major collateral damage to everyone's rights. Interior enforcement is more like carpet bombing; its effectiveness depends on decimating Americans' liberties.
Nowhere is that clearer than in Arizona—ground zero for the war on immigration over the last decade. Thanks to both state and federal laws, interior enforcement has already affected Arizonans of all income levels, hues, and political persuasions, from archconservatives to ultra-progressives.
Arizona's 2010 "Your Papers, Please" law (S.B. 1070) is notorious for subjecting the state's Latino community to widespread racial profiling and harassment. Less well known is that this law—along with its 2007 predecessor, the Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA)—also targeted American businesses.
Firms that "knowingly" hire undocumented workers face all kinds of consequences, including the loss of a license to operate at all, or what is dubbed the "business death penalty." The law mandated that all Arizona employers use E-Verify, a federal database to check prospective employees' work authorization status. Arizona was the first state in the country to require this.
Now some states want to go even further than Arizona. Texas has passed S.B. 4, which includes many of the same provisions as in the Arizona law along with some new twists of its own. Not only would it deny certain state funds to "sanctuary cities" that refuse to cooperate with ICE's requests to hold unauthorized aliens without a warrant; it would impose civil penalties on these jurisdictions to the tune of $1,000 for the first day and escalating to $25,000 per day per violation. The state would also be able to remove from office duly elected officials who fail to comply with federal demands. And officials elected to enforce immigration restrictions would be banned from "criticizing" these laws, basically outlawing dissent by sheriffs and other law enforcement officers chosen at the ballot box. (At the time of this writing, a federal judge in Texas had temporarily blocked the law from going into effect.)
Since Arizona has already gotten a small taste of what an aggressive interior enforcement regime involves, I traveled to the Sunset State over the summer to see what America may look like if the Trump administration keeps on its current course. I visited businesses that have been targeted for immigration violations. I visited humanitarians who fear finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. And I visited a border town where an ICE checkpoint has made residents feel like they're living under foreign occupation. Everywhere, I found native-born Americans suffering under an increasingly restrictive immigration regime and the expansive government powers required to enforce it.
The Businessman Driven to Bankruptcy
Jason LeVecke, a 46-year-old father of five and a former Marine, used to own 180 Hardee's and Carl's Jr. burger joints in the Midwest and Southwest. Carl's Jr. was actually founded by LeVecke's grandfather, Carl Karcher, a staunch Catholic and Reagan Republican. LeVecke is a free market conservative.
Although the restaurant industry is one of America's biggest employers and generates over $300 billion in annual sales, it is a very tough business, in no small part due to a perennial labor shortage. The fast food sector has an especially hard time, because most Americans aren't eager to put in long hours at physically demanding jobs for the low wages that the Carl's Jr.s of the world can afford to pay them. Restaurants face a turnover rate of 71.2 percent, compared to the private sector average of 45.9 percent. But the H-2B worker visas that restaurateurs need to hire foreigners are capped at 66,000 annually, about a quarter of the total demand.
The upshot, according to the Pew Research Center, is that 11 percent of all U.S. restaurant and bar employees are undocumented immigrants, including 17 percent of busboys, 19 percent of dishwashers, and 20 percent of cooks. In major cities, maybe 30 to 40 percent of all restaurant workers are undocumented, according to Saru Jayaraman, a labor activist and the founder of the group Restaurant Opportunities Center United. If they were forced to kick out their unauthorized workers, they'd simply shut down.
That's what happened to LeVecke.
His travails began in 2013. George W. Bush's administration had relied on SWAT-style ICE raids to ferret out illegal workers, but under Barack Obama the feds depended on audits. ICE would let government auditors loose on a company's books to pore over I-9 forms, looking for evidence of malfeasance and improprieties in hiring.
LeVecke's audit came at a particularly inopportune time. He was already overextended from a franchise buying spree when ICE asked him to hand over three years of employee records, which worked out to about 3,000 employees in restaurants spanning seven states. The agency gave him three days to get the paperwork together. After LeVecke scraped together funds to comply, he says there was complete radio silence from ICE for 10 months.
When he finally did hear back, the news wasn't good. ICE had flagged 1,200 employees—almost half of his workforce—as "suspect." That meant he was expected to file additional papers to verify their authorization status, this time on a deadline of 10 days.
LeVecke was devastated and furious. Devastated, because some of the workers on ICE's list had been with his company for a very long time. "They were good, hardworking people who had busted their asses to make the company what it was," he says. He had come to know them over the years, and the prospect of firing them was heart-wrenching.
There is no way for the government to conduct the policy equivalent of drone strikes and cleanly remove millions of immigrants without major collateral damage. Interior enforcement is more like carpet bombing; its effectiveness depends on decimating American's liberties.
Furious, because ICE's list included not just people who'd been with him since before LAWA mandated the use of E-Verify, but people he had hired later, after verifying their work status against the federal database. He had followed the rules, but the database was riddled with errors and so had mistakenly cleared them. Instead of giving him a reprieve and trying to fix its faulty system, ICE wanted to nail him.
Bad as E-Verify's false negative rate is now, it was downright horrendous when Arizona first mandated it. A Westat report commissioned by the federal government in 2009 concluded that about 54 percent of unauthorized workers submitted to E-Verify were incorrectly found to be authorized to work.
LeVecke estimates that in the end he coughed up $10 million in direct and indirect compliance costs for the audit. Meanwhile, given that there was no way to hire a totally new, equally experienced, ICE-authorized workforce, his choice, he maintains, was to stay within the law or stay in business. Many of the senior franchise managers ICE flagged were simply irreplaceable. "There is no way to overnight get rid of people who've been with your company for 10 years and know its operations like the back of their hand, and then replace them with rookies and expect things to not go wrong," LeVecke laments.
Almost 80 percent of Arizona's non-naturalized immigrants are undocumented. (The remainder, while not U.S. citizens, are authorized to be here.) The unauthorized population constitutes the vast majority of the workforce in the fast food, construction, and home health care industries. But hiring undocumented workers again would have exposed LeVecke to Arizona's business death penalty laws, where repeated infractions can trigger the revocation of your license. ICE also could have slapped him with federal criminal penalties. That's what it did to his friend Danny Hendon, who owned Danny's Family Car Wash Chain, after he was found rehiring some of the workers ICE had forced him to lay off. LeVecke's competitors who had not been audited had wiggle room; LeVecke didn't.
In March 2016, LeVecke declared bankruptcy. He sold his business to his equity partner after a nasty dispute with lots of finger pointing all around, and he moved to San Diego.
An odd thing about LeVecke's case is that ICE chose to target all his restaurants nationwide. His lawyer—Julie Pace, who counsels employers on I-9 audits and immigration law—believes that when ICE does that, as opposed to targeting specific affiliates, it is deliberately trying to drive a company out of business. She is convinced that ICE went after LeVecke because he was an outspoken critic of Arizona's anti-immigration laws, and of the harsh and inhumane enforcement tactics that the notorious Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio deployed to terrorize the Latino and business communities. (The week I was in Arizona, Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt for defying a court order to stop his illegal profiling of Latinos. President Trump pardoned him before he could be sentenced to jail time.)
LeVecke was also working with D.C. groups to push comprehensive immigration reform. None of this sat well with Arpaio and his anti-immigrant comrades. Pace believes they orchestrated a campaign to flood his county hotline with tips about unauthorized workers in LeVecke's employ, which Arpaio then passed on—or encouraged others to pass on—to the ICE hotline. Once that agency gets a minimum number of complaints, it is obligated to launch a full-blown investigation.
But as bad as LeVecke's fate sounds, Pace notes, it pales in comparison to what could happen to businesses should the Trump administration decide to go after them to the fullest extent of the law. Both Bush and Obama ramped up enforcement against employers for their own reasons, in their own ways. But both, by and large, pressed only civil charges. The Trump administration could increase criminal prosecutions of employers that hire undocumented workers. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is an indefatigable anti-immigration warrior. "The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws, and the catch-and-release practices of old are over," he declared in April.
Pace is already seeing more aggressiveness toward employers in the kinds of inquiries ICE has been making of her clients under Sessions' leadership. For example, the Obama administration would conduct random audits of companies. Trump is doing more targeted audits of businesses based on tips from former employees. He also seems to be doing more repeat audits of companies with previous violations, which makes it easier to pursue criminal prosecutions, because getting caught more than once shows "intent."
But to really understand the reign of terror that could come, look at what Trump's hero Arpaio, armed with similar powers, did to another Arizona restaurant owner.
The Republican Restaurateur
Bret Frimmel, a burly 43-year-old with a shaved head, is the last businessman you'd expect to get nailed for hiring undocumented workers. He owns Uncle Sam's, a restaurant that serves pizza, wings, Caesar salad, and other classic American fare in two locations in the greater Phoenix area. The restaurant, which Frimmel took over from his father straight out of high school, is festooned with flashy red paint and big, bold white stars. Two statues in tall red-and-white striped top hats and matching trousers stand on either side of the front door, with a big sign in the window reading, "We Want You."
Subtle it is not. But it is exactly the kind of establishment one would expect to appeal to the local Republican club—which, indeed, used to hold its regular monthly meetings there.
But that was before Arpaio went after Frimmel and his general manager, Lisa Norton, making them the first employers to be criminally charged under Arizona's employer sanction laws in June 2014.
My information about Frimmel comes from court documents, local news reports, and conversations with his lawyer, Leon Silver, who could have been named after his hair color. Silver is a disheveled, uncombed go-getter. He wouldn't let me talk with Frimmel, not even about his personal biography; he seemed terrified that his client would inadvertently say something that might damage their civil lawsuit against Maricopa County and Arpaio.
When I showed up at the Uncle Sam's on Shea Street for what I mistakenly thought was a mutually agreed upon interview with Frimmel in Silver's presence, Silver turned white—or whiter—with rage. Barely had I greeted the restaurateur when his attorney escorted me to a table at the back of the restaurant and gave me an earful about how I did not understand Arpaio's grip on the town. I was out the door before my coffee could arrive.
But here is the information I've gathered: It started in July 2013, when Arpaio, eager to further solidify his tough-on-illegals reputation ahead of a re-election campaign, began raiding area establishments to sweep out unauthorized workers. Over the next year and a half, he invaded over 80 workplaces, including car washes, restaurants, and janitorial cleaning services, rounding up about 800 people.
Uncle Sam's was among them. Arpaio hauled away nine Latino waiters and busboys from the establishment.
But the real fun for Frimmel began the next year. That's when Arpaio's newly created "criminal employment squad" searched not just Frimmel's restaurant but also his home, looking for evidence of conspiracy to engage in identity theft, forgery, and, bizarrely, human and drug trafficking. Officers arrested both Frimmel and Norton, a 53-year-old grandmother, and eventually charged them with using false identity papers to hire undocumented workers, a criminal offense in the state after LAWA.
Thanks to negative local press coverage, Silver says, Uncle Sam's went overnight from one of Phoenix's most popular eateries to virtually empty. The restaurant's customers tended to be fierce Arpaio supporters—as were Frimmel and Norton, at one point. So when the sheriff marked out Uncle Sam's, that was all they needed to know. The lost customers were apparently untroubled that the sheriff had become nationally notorious for the concentration camp–like conditions that plagued the tent cities where he crammed unauthorized immigrants in blazing heat, or for incidents like the time he forced a pregnant woman to deliver her baby in shackles.
As it turns out, Arpaio's case against Frimmel was a fabrication. Arpaio's deputies told the judge issuing the warrant that interviews with the unauthorized workers caught at Uncle Sam's revealed that Frimmel would ask them to sign blank employment forms, which he later filled in with fraudulent Social Security numbers and identities. A later review of those interview tapes showed that they had said no such thing. In fact, the employees themselves pointed out that Frimmel never interviewed them—nor did Norton—and that the lower-level managers required them to fill out all the forms themselves and to provide identification. Some employees actually told Arpaio's deputies that Frimmel would fire managers who failed to obtain valid identification from a new hire, a fact that flew directly in the face of the case that Arpaio was trying to concoct.
After the 2014 raid, when Arpaio found unauthorized workers at Uncle Sam's, the Obama Department of Justice approached Frimmel to see if he'd cooperate with an investigation of Arpaio for racial profiling. It's unclear whether Frimmel consented, but Silver believes Arpaio got wind of the offer. Either way, the sheriff dusted off a 2-year-old tip he had received from the wife of a former Uncle Sam's employee whom Frimmel had fired for embezzlement, and used it to obtain a search warrant.
That ginned-up excuse wasn't enough. So egregious were Arpaio's lies that the presiding judge declared the evidence obtained from Frimmel's restaurant and residence inadmissible in court, prompting the county to drop the charges several months after the raid. But Frimmel's and Norton's lives had already been upended, and Uncle Sam's has never fully recovered, Silver claims. So they are suing Maricopa County, Arpaio, and many of his deputies in their official and personal capacities for civil damages.
You might think Arpaio is just a bad apple. But even in more scrupulous hands than Arpaio's, employer sanction laws are a far more draconian abrogation of employers' freedoms than the safety, sexual harassment, and other workplace regulations that drive the right insane. Yet few conservatives object to them.
Meanwhile, progressive outfits such as One Arizona, which commendably provides all kinds of valuable services to undocumented aliens, including legal do's and don'ts in the event of an ICE raid, offer nothing analogous to small businesses. To the contrary, One Arizona Executive Director Ian Danley feels it is unfair to crack down on undocumented workers without going after employers as well. "The workers get deported and employers are back in business," he complains. That is fundamentally unjust, in his view. The Washington Post's Dylan Matthews, a pro-immigration progressive, in 2013 approvingly cited the Migration Policy Institute's call for mandatory E-Verify to require employers to check the work status of all new hires—and for a bigger ICE budget so it can conduct more raids on employers who hire undocumented workers.
An employer crackdown could potentially become a rare point of bipartisan consensus on immigration policy. Democrats might go along with mandatory E-Verify and more funding for employer raids if Trump settles for something less than a full-blown border wall. But federal employer sanction laws would be far worse than similar laws at the state level, because once in place, they are less likely to go away.
Arizona's crackdown has wreaked havoc on its economy. The Cato Institute's Alex Nowrasteh estimates that 36 percent of the unauthorized population fled the state between 2008 and 2011. The Sunset State entered the Great Recession a year before the rest of the country, and it stayed there two years longer. Home prices dropped about 20 points more in Arizona than the rest of the country as the state's population shrank. And several immigrant-dependent industries—construction, agricultural, hospitality—experienced a huge retrenchment.
So big was the hit that the state actually stopped enforcing the bulk of its employer-sanction laws in late 2014, notes James Garcia, director of communications at the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. But distant federal politicians who don't have to live with the consequences of such policies, and in fact can use them to rally their base, will be far less inclined to back off when their actions harm local economies.
"The state has barely dug itself out of S.B. 1070 and the Arpaio era," laments Garcia. "The last thing it needs right now is for the Trump administration to come along and kick it back in an economic hole."
The Sociable Retirees
About 11 miles north of the Mexican border lies Arivaca, an unincorporated hamlet of 700 souls at the foot of the San Luis Mountains. Apart from its gorgeous rolling hills and sprawling meadows, its most notable geographical feature is that it is located within the area the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has dubbed the "100-Mile Constitution-Free Zone."
This is the inland area along both borders and the U.S. coastline where, thanks to the Supreme Court's 1976 ruling in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, immigration authorities enjoy almost all the same powers to stop and search people and property without warrants that they have at the actual border.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans live in this zone, although immigration authorities aren't doing much patrolling in the northern half, abutting Canada, or along the coasts. But since 9/11, the southwestern corridor where Arivaca sits has become a major nexus for interior enforcement.
LeVecke was devastated and furious. Devastated, because some of the workers the ICE audit flagged had been with his company for a very long time. Furious, because the list included people whose employment status he had verified against the federal database.
One of the oldest towns in the state, Arivaca's low cost of living has made it a particularly attractive destination for retirees looking for affordable natural beauty. The people drawn to the place range from cops to hippies; some of the original ranching and mining families still live there, too. It was majority Hispanic before World War II, but has slowly become majority white.
I talked to about a dozen of these white residents—conservative, liberal, independent, and every other political species—and not one of them wanted an uncontrolled border that simply gave free passage to drug smugglers, terrorists, or other criminals. But most of them strongly objected to the country's current path of ever more aggressive interior enforcement. It has already profoundly altered their way of life.
Even before America's post-9/11 enthusiasm for interior enforcement, patrol agents were known to behave, in some residents' words, "like cowboys." They would jeopardize public safety with high-speed chases of vehicles suspected of carrying illegal contraband down Arivaca Road, an undulating 23-mile route that twists around hills and canyons. They'd wait at blind turns and then "spike strip"—throw tire-shredding bands across the asphalt—to disable suspicious vehicles. Sometimes that would cause the car to flip and crash, maiming or killing the occupants.
But after Washington decided to move beyond merely deterring illegal flows to achieving "operational control" of the border, Arivaca became the object of even more special attention from the feds.
In addition to the routine patrols, Customs and Border Protection, flush with funds, decided to build physical infrastructure in the city. The agency installed ugly surveillance towers with swiveling cameras to scan for anyone scurrying in the ravines and slopes surrounding the town. It laid underground sensors to track suspicious movements. It sent armed agents and their dogs to snoop for migrants on private ranches, any time of the night or day, without homeowners' permission or a court order. Some fed-up residents took to posting prominent signs around their property warning the Border Patrol to stay out without a warrant.
Worst of all are the checkpoints planted on the two main access roads to the town, which mean no one can enter without being tracked or leave without being stopped. These were installed as "temporary" measures until the border was brought under control. That was 10 years ago.
It is impossible to tell whether the Arivaca checkpoints serve any useful purpose, because Arizona's Customs and Border Protection office won't provide data breaking down apprehensions between ports of entry and interior checkpoints. In the Tucson area overall, apprehensions have dropped 86 percent between 2000 and 2014, according to Todd Miller's Border Patrol Nation (City Lights Publishers). But none of the folks I talked to could remember a single instance when their checkpoints had actually thwarted a big drug shipment or apprehended a large truckload of unauthorized aliens.
This is partly because Arivaca, 25 percent of whose residents are retired cops, is a relatively safe town that simply isn't a major thoroughfare for illegal flows. And it is partly because, in order to maintain the fiction that the stations don't run afoul of a law forbidding permanent interior checkpoints, the Border Patrol occasionally shuts them down for "inclement weather." That's when any unauthorized immigrants in hiding on ranches or in hills nearby make a run for it.
But Arivaca residents don't have the luxury of coordinating their movements with checkpoint timings. The tiny hamlet has no school or hospital, and only one small grocery store and a little café. So most people make frequent out-of-town trips for routine errands. Yet every time they leave, they say they feel like they are going from the occupied West Bank to Israel.
"It is hard to believe that this is the United States of America," fumes Leesa Jacobson, a local activist. Most people do their best to minimize cross-town trips to avoid encounters with checkpoint agents.
As per the Martinez-Fuerte ruling, agents are not allowed to ask people anything beyond whether they are American citizens. If someone answers "yes," he or she is supposed to be waved through without any further questions, especially if the person is a resident—unless there are genuine grounds for "reasonable suspicion." But border officers routinely drive a patrol truck through this loophole.
Any number of things can raise their reasonable suspicion. Being Hispanic is definitely a trigger point. Jacobson's group, People Helping People, set up a makeshift monitoring station across from the checkpoint for a few months, until the Border Patrol pushed it to an unobservable distance (sparking a lawsuit). During that period it found that Latinos, who constitute about 20 percent of Arivaca's population, and some of whom go back many generations, are 26 times more likely than whites to be asked to show identification and 20 times more likely to have their vehicle inspected. So rampant is the racial profiling, says Arivaca resident Jay Rivett, that his daughter, who is married to a Latino man and lives a few hours away, no longer likes to visit them for fear of harassment. "We visit her now," he laments.
A more diverse Border Patrol isn't likely to help much, because Latino agents engage in racial profiling as much as anyone else. In fact, Arivaca citizens say, sometimes they harass their fellow Latinos even more. Perhaps they feel they have to prove something to their white colleagues.
But white residents get their share of abuse, too. If they drive a sedan with a closed trunk rather than an open pickup truck, that can raise "reasonable suspicion." If their truck has camping gear or heavy equipment, that can raise "reasonable suspicion." If they are leaving the checkpoint early in the morning or late at night, that can raise "reasonable suspicion." If they are in a hurry and don't make requisite small talk with checkpoint agents, that can raise "reasonable suspicion." And if they're too mouthy, that can raise "reasonable suspicion" as well.
That last item has been a particular problem for 64-year-old Arivaca native Ken Buchanan, a retired cement mason. He says his family's troubles with the Border Patrol date back more than three decades to when his wife, Deborah, a retired librarian, started exposing the agency's abuses of power in her column for Connections, the town's tiny monthly newspaper.
This incensed the local agents so much, Buchanan says, they started pulling him over routinely and telling him to "control his wife." The whole family fled the town in 1993 but returned five years ago—and immediately became targets again, Buchanan says. Although the Border Patrol rotates its field agents frequently to prevent drug cartels from bribing them, one senior agent was still around and recognized Buchanan' wife.
In the first few years after his return, Buchanan claims, he got stopped about 10 times at the checkpoint. The worst episode was on Christmas Eve about four years ago, when Buchanan, wearing a Santa suit, was driving to town for a gig. An agent asked him to step out and, without warning, let his dogs loose inside the car, a clearly illegal act. When Buchanan protested, the agent pointed his gun at him and peppered him with abusive comments. "I thought he was ready to shoot Santa," Buchanan says.
He complained, and this time both the Arizona Customs and Border Protection regional office and the D.C. headquarters followed up. They assured him he would never see that agent again—and he didn't. Buchanan says the officer investigating his complaint confided that they had hired too many agents too quickly because of congressional demands for more aggressive patrolling, and they simply couldn't follow the normal vetting procedures. That'll be a big problem with Trump's plans to add 10,000 border patrol agents, especially as he'll have to reach even deeper into the barrel to find people.
The agency declined to comment on Buchanan's claims beyond stating that it is committed to treating all residents with "professionalism, dignity, and respect." But such experiences have triggered protests in Arivaca. When Jacobson started a petition drive to dismantle the station, more than half the town signed it. Since then, the agents have been more polite to the residents and less likely to harass just for the heck of it. But that doesn't mean they'll let people who assert their constitutional right against unauthorized searches and seizures—say, by refusing to pop their trunks—simply pass through. Usually, that'll mean they'll be detained for up to an hour so a canine unit can come and do a sniff search. Most people choose to acquiesce rather than make a stand.
But even the most scrupulous supervision can't change the logic that pushes interior enforcement toward unconstitutional and draconian behavior. Just as border agents can be bought out by cartels, so can locals. You never know when some border dweller will start doing drug runs or stuffing illegals in his trunk for money. From the Border Patrol's point of view, residents are potential enemies.
There are currently about a dozen interior checkpoints along the Arizona border and about 100 nationwide. If the Trump administration gets more funds, we're likely to see many more.
The Humanitarian Helpers
Aggressive immigration enforcement isn't just truncating Arivaca residents' rights. It is truncating their humanity.
Jacobson, along with some other locals, volunteers with an outfit called No More Deaths. It was founded in 2004 by leaders of multiple faiths after a crackdown along the California border pushed more migrants into the harsh southern Arizona desert. The number of dead bodies retrieved from the blazing sand spiked from 14 per year in the 1990s to over 150 per year in the 2000s. Indeed, 10 times more people died each year in the dunes and canyons of Arizona from 1997 through 2007 than died trying to cross to West Germany during the entire existence of the Berlin Wall.
The organization has set up camps near a few border towns, including Arivaca, where its volunteers offer food and basic first aid to migrants in acute distress: bandaging their blistered feet, giving them ice packs for heat stroke, and so on. The migrants are expected to leave as soon as they recover a bit. This also helps to take the load off ICE, because if it picks up these migrants, it has to offer them medical care.
Under the Bush and Obama administrations, No More Deaths had an informal arrangement with ICE that, as per international Red Cross standards, the agency would treat the camp as a medical facility and leave it alone, conducting its patrolling activity elsewhere. The border patrol's Tucson Sector affirmed this agreement in April, three months after Trump assumed office.
But in June, border agents suddenly showed up at the camp and demanded that the migrants inside surrender. They complied. The agency returned a few weeks later with a warrant—along with a helicopter, 15 vehicles, and 30 armed agents—and raided the camp on the pretext that there were criminal aliens there. Some of the aliens did turn out to have criminal records. But that has long been a possibility, and the border patrol never chose to raid the camp before. The real purpose, Arizona ACLU Executive Director Alessandra Soler argues, was to send a signal that the border patrol means to up its game.
The camp has been abandoned for now: Some of the nurses and humanitarian aid workers are afraid that the Trump administration might use anti-harboring laws and other legislation to arrest them. Jacobson worries about that as well. She always carries water bottles and blankets in her car, to help desperate migrants wandering along roadsides or languishing in the brush. She leaves supplies strewn around her 10-acre property, too. But she now fears that if she tried to give someone a ride to a medical facility, she could be charged under federal laws against transporting illegals.
The war on immigration has taken a great toll on unauthorized aliens, its targets. But it is also badly affecting Americans themselves, its intended beneficiaries. Those who think they can escape the crossfire because they are authorized, naturalized, or native-born, with American ancestors going back generations, are simply fooling themselves.
There are already many ways for American citizens to lose when the government can detain and deport citizens without due process, shut down and criminally penalize businesses that don't hire from a preapproved pool of workers, treat border towns like they are enemy territory, and raid humanitarian outfits for simply pursuing their missions. If the Trump administration keeps ramping up its crackdown, there will be even more. No one will be safe.