Every time Carlotta Wray goes to a doctor's appointment or has to run errands outside the border community of Arivaca—the place she's called home for more than 30 years—she must drive through a Border Patrol checkpoint. In fact, it is impossible to drive in and out of the town located 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border without answering the repetitive question: "Are you a U.S. citizen?"
Wray, a Mexico native, became a citizen long ago. She answers the question, but there have been times when she's asked to provide identification, or explain in detail where she's coming from and where she's going—all because of her brown skin, she says.
The issues with border agents follow Arivaca residents home, she says. Wray recalls the time her neighbor's dog was run over by an agent driving at a very high speed. Lately, she's even afraid to let her grandchildren walk to the school bus stop alone. Cases like those of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez's—a 16-year-old boy from Nogales, Mexico who was killed by a Border Patrol agent in a cross border shooting—terrify her.
Wray says the first few years she lived in Arivaca, the town was peaceful and quiet. It is still a beautiful community, but it's been tainted by the ever-growing presence of Border Patrol agents and interior checkpoints.
"They are here and they are not going anywhere. It is worse than a nightmare," she says. "They go wherever they want. They come to our community with weapons. They don't respect anything. It scares the residents. They interrupt our lives. They steal our peace. We are at war with them."
People Helping People
Last Thursday afternoon, Wray and a handful of other members of the Arivaca-based humanitarian group People Helping People stationed themselves on Arizona Highway 286—roughly 26 miles north from the border with Sasabe—wearing neon yellow vests and binoculars around their necks, to oversee a Border Patrol checkpoint from 2 to 5 p.m.
Unlike the previous day, though, the group had to remain roughly 180 feet away from the inspection area because agents had placed white-rope and two signs that read, "No authorized entry beyond this point" on both dirt areas adjacent to the highway. From that distance, the interactions between agents and the public were inaudible. An agent who approached the group said the barrier was there as a "precaution," and that, even though they weren't being disruptive, the group's presence was not consensual on Border Patrol's end, because "you are here for a different purpose," the agent said.
When a volunteer asked for his agent number, he refused to give it to her.
"We were standing all the way up there for like six hours [Wednesday], it was peaceful. We have multiple agents on camera saying, 'it is totally fine,' and today we came and there is this enforcement zone. [It is] clearly a response to being watched ...," says PHP volunteer Eva Lewis.
The group plans to watchdog the checkpoint on-and-off for at least the next month, or more, to collect data on issues like racial profiling, harassment and other types of possible abuse from border agents. Since February 2014, PHP volunteers have been monitoring another checkpoint located on Arivaca Road, triggered by ongoing testimonies of abuse.
"We said, 'OK, [Border Patrol is] not collecting statistics on what [they] are doing, and nobody is holding [them] accountable," Lewis says. "This is an agency that is operating in these rural places with complete impunity, [and] is here harassing border residents, and not allowing anyone to watch them or hold them accountable for the way they behave."
At the Arivaca Road checkpoint, Border Patrol tried to push the group out under threats of arrest. There were also times when agents would park their trucks close-up and blow exhaust smoke onto them, Lewis recalls. So, two members of the PHP— Peter Ragan and Leesa Jacobson—filed a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, arguing that efforts to block the group's monitoring is a violation of First Amendment rights. The suit is pending.
Ultimately, after overseeing the Arivaca Road checkpoint over the course of two months and a total of more than 100 hours, PHP found that Latino drivers were 20 times more likely than white drivers to get pulled over for a second inspection, and 26 times more likely to be asked to show an ID.
As PHP points out in a 2014 report, U.S Customs and Border Protection rules define racial profiling as "the invidious use of race or ethnicity as a criterion in conducting stops, searches and other law enforcement, investigation and screening activities ... It is the policy of CBP to prohibit the consideration of race or ethnicity in law enforcement investigation and screening activities in all but the most exceptional circumstances." The statistics gathered by the group showed otherwise.
PHP's findings also argued against the belief that interior checkpoints are key to border security efforts and immigration enforcement. In fiscal year 2013, interior checkpoints in the Border Patrol Tucson Sector saw less than 1 percent of apprehensions, according to documents obtained by the ACLU. In the same calendar year, nine out of the 23 checkpoints in the region reported zero arrests of "deportable subjects."
"At the time we were monitoring [the Arivaca Road checkpoint], there [wasn't] a single arrest or stop for contraband. [Interior] checkpoints are not doing what [Border Patrol] reports to be doing," Lewis says.
She says these checkpoints only drive immigrants to more remote areas with extremely dangerous routes. "People are suffering and dying in the desert because of that. We see those people come through town. It is a horrifying strategy," Lewis says.
At the Arivaca checkpoint, the group feels their presence has definitely helped decrease Border Patrol scrutiny. Still, their primary focus is to shut down interior checkpoints around Arivaca and throughout the state.
"The goal has always been border demilitarization," Lewis says. "Our campaign is against these checkpoints. There are a lot of problems militarization has brought to our community."