The government's efforts to stop illegal immigration keep coming at the expense of the property and privacy rights of landowners along the border. Just ask Ricardo Palacios.
The 74-year-old attorney and rancher has experienced an ongoing stream of harassment and intrusions from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents at his cattle ranch, located just north of Laredo, Texas. Palacios claims that CBP agents have repeatedly entered his ranch without warrants and questioned his family members as they enter and leave the property. At one point, he says, they assaulted Palacios' son following a late-night traffic stop.
The last straw came in November 2017, when Palacios found a small surveillance camera affixed to a Mesquite tree on his property. When Palacios removed the device, he was contacted by the CBP and by the Texas Rangers, both claiming ownership of the camera and threatening Palacios' arrest if it were not returned.
Faced with conflicting ownership claims for the camera and the possibility of arrest, Palacios sued both agencies in December 2017.
"We are asking a judge to tell the federal government, specifically Border Patrol, to stay off our client's property without permission, without a court order," says David Almaraz, one of the attorneys representing Palacios.
The lawsuit claims that through their repeated, unsanctioned intrusions onto his property, CBP agents are guilty of criminal trespassing and of violating the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on warrantless and unreasonable searches. He seeks $500,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, plus a judicial declaration that immigration officials cannot enter Palacios' property without a warrant or his consent.
Almaraz says that his clients' problems with Border Patrol started when the agency moved a permanent checkpoint it maintained on I-35 from 13 miles north of border to 29 miles north of the border, far closer to the Palacios ranch. In April 2010, Palacios sent a letter to the local CBP chief complaining of agents performing aggressive, suspicionless traffic stops, repeatedly trespassing onto his property, and damaging the barbed-wire fences enclosing his ranch.
The letter also claims that Border Patrol agents assaulted one of his sons after he declined to answer questions at a traffic stop. According to Palacios, the CBP pulled the man from his vehicle, threw him to the ground while he was handcuffed, and locked him in a cell for over an hour.
"He had many, many incidences where he found Border Patrol walking around his property at night with flashlights right outside his house," Almaraz tells Reason. "Sometimes they would leave. Other times they would say, 'We can do whatever we want.'"
According to the lawsuit, the Border Patrol would insist that they were allowed to enter the property without a warrant because they were within the 25-mile zone. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 gives immigration officials the power to enter without a warrant any private property within 25 miles of an external boundary "for the purpose of patrolling the border to prevent the illegal entry of aliens into the United States."
Palacios argues that this is immaterial because his property sits some 35 miles from the border, something Almaraz says "anyone can look at a map and see." Even if he were within the zone, though, he could make a compelling argument that the government is exceeding its statutory limits.
"The question becomes what 'entry for the purpose of patrolling' means," says Chris Rickerd of the American Civil Liberties Union. The CBP has adopted an extremely broad definition of this provision: cutting fencing, conducting traffic stops on private property, even clearing vegetation and making permanent alterations to the landscape.
The installation of cameras and other recording devices without a property owner's consent, the CBP likewise claims, is allowed as part of their patrolling authority. The Texas Department of Public Safety, in conjunction with CBP, has placed over 5,000 cameras along the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of these cameras are installed on private property, with CBP refusing to disclose to property owners when and where they are placed.
When the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, Rickerd argues, "they weren't considering this sort of surveillance."
Ultimately, says Almaraz, the lawsuit is about preserving Palacios' right to live in peace.
"He just wants to be left alone, wants to be left to his privacy, to his ranch," says Almaraz. "He's 74, he's almost retired. He just wants the government to stay away from his property and not put cameras everywhere."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Customs and Border Protection as Customs and Border Patrol. Border Patrol is an agency within CBP.