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When Everyone Is a Suspect: How Vehicle Inspections Terrorize Immigrant Communities

Arbitrary checkpoints in non-border areas have grave health consequences for many, including US citizen children.

A special agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement searches a man's vehicle as he heads into Mexico at the Hidalgo border crossing on May 28, 2010, in Hidalgo, Texas.

Part of the Series

At the start of this year, two videos circulated that showed US Border Patrol agents in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, arresting passengers aboard a Greyhound bus. In the first video, agents walk down the aisles checking documents, as bewildered passengers ask, “This is new?” One woman whispers to another that she takes this same bus all the time and has never had this happen. As a US citizen, she adds, “They have no right to stop me.” Meanwhile, agents single out a woman — a Jamaican grandmother named Beverly who had overstayed her tourist visa after visiting her newborn granddaughter in Orlando — and escort her off the bus along with her red suitcase. In the second video, four agents take 33-year-old Andrew Anderson into custody. The 12-year Miami resident and business owner from Trinidad was taken to ICE’s Broward Transitional Center after being unable to prove citizenship.

The videos, obtained by the Florida Immigrant Coalition, have been viewed over 3 million times on Facebook and Twitter, where people have expressed outrage at what was widely viewed as a violation of civil liberties. But in fact, the practice of checking documents of vehicle passengers — including US citizens — to inquire about immigration status is common and has been going on for decades. A taken-for-granted inspection practice in places like the Southwestern borderlands, rarely have these scenes been captured on video in the interior of the US in places like Florida. Circulated via social media, these images prompted complaints about the apparent violation of the right against unlawful searches.

But for many immigrant communities, the possibility of raids, roadblocks and arbitrary searches are part of the routinized fear they face every day. These practices are effective because they rely on highly visible inspections, detentions and deportations of a few — like grandmother Beverly and businessman Anderson at the Fort Lauderdale bus station — to foster the everyday vulnerability of countless others. Fear is the result not of the certainty that a person or their loved ones will be deported, but uncertainty that they might be.

The Psychological Effects of Random Vehicle Checks

From the outset, the Trump administration has utilized a combination of these practices to keep the threat of deportation hanging over immigrants’ heads. As a result, there has been an explosion of fear in immigrant communities — a reaction not to increased deportation itself, but to its apparent randomness. Similar to targeted raids, stopping vehicles to check the identity papers of drivers and passengers can be damaging to communities, producing fear and trauma-like symptoms. Several studies have pointed to the negative health impact of immigration raids on Latino communities and the very real physical health problems that result from this stress.

My own research in communities along the US/Mexico border highlights the impact of an intense, layered combination of surveillance in the form of checkpoints, roadblocks, traffic stops and raids. The border region is distinct from other parts of the country, by virtue of the constraints of the international border and a 100-mile “buffer zone” that forms a secondary boundary to the interior of the US. This impacts the daily lives of immigrants and mixed-status families, but is largely unfamiliar to people outside the region. Court rulings have confirmed that the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which provides protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, does not apply at spaces up to 100 miles away from the US border. Section 8 U.S.C. § 1357(a)(3) further addresses US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials’ authority to stop and conduct searches on vessels, trains, aircrafts or other vehicles anywhere within “a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States.” Without further statutory guidance, regulations alone expansively define this “reasonable distance” as 100 air miles from any external boundary.

Notably, roughly two-thirds of the US population lives within 100 miles of a land or coastal border, including the nation’s largest cities, such as New York City, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami, along with entire states including Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont. The exceptional circumstances within this 100-mile buffer zone explains why agents indeed had the authority to search the Greyhound buses, demanding proof of identification from all passengers.

Along the border, the US Border Patrol employs a layered approach known as the “defense in depth” strategy, utilizing about 140 immigration checkpoints along all highways between 25 and 100 miles from the border. The permanent checkpoints are visible from miles away along all lanes of major highways that lead away from Mexico and into the interior of the United States. It is a “layered” strategy because these permanent checkpoints are supplemented by roadblocks along major roads where people live and work, where police stop to query passing drivers; this is further combined with random traffic stops and driver’s license restrictions. While the permanent checkpoints trap people within a distinct space, the temporary roadblocks and other restrictions on mobility fuel fear and uncertainty within that space. But why, if it is legal, did this incident appear so out of the ordinary? Why did it provoke widespread outrage here, unlike the daily inspection practices faced by border communities? The answer lies in the fact that it has been infrequently utilized in most parts of the interior of the country. The suspension of the Fourth Amendment is almost solely invoked to defend practices in states like Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico, and especially impacts Latino immigrant communities concentrated within a strip that forms a secondary boundary to the United States. As a result, the ACLU has concluded that the “100-mile” rule utilized by CBP is arbitrary, and its potentially discriminatory effects have never been subjected to serious scrutiny by federal lawmakers.

The checkpoints also impact people’s ability to seek out medical services. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and their family members are trapped in these border regions without access to specialized health care facilities. Fear of apprehension has exacerbated serious health problems for many, including seriously ill or disabled US citizen children unable to travel with their parents. The cases I have heard while working in border communities seem almost unbelievable, like that of an 8-year-old with leukemia who had to travel 400 miles by bus to Houston, accompanied only by her 14-year old brother because her undocumented parents could not cross the checkpoint. The issue was also thrust into the national spotlight in October 2017, when doctors in Laredo sent 10-year-old Rosa Maria Hernandez to a hospital in Corpus Christi for emergency gallbladder surgery. Border Patrol agents at one of the checkpoints followed Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant born with cerebral palsy, and waited at the hospital to apprehend her after she received treatment.

In addition to confining immigrants to particular spaces, these inspection practices simultaneously treat all residents, including US citizens, as potentially suspect. They too must demonstrate proof of identity and legal status. This is precisely what sparked public outrage in the recent Florida incident, leading people to question whether the agents had a right to ask for people’s documents. These practices also encourage racial profiling, as law enforcement officers and Border Patrol agents must attempt to parse out some undefined marker of “undocumentedness.” This becomes more complex when the majority population is Latino, as it often is in border communities.

The arbitrariness of recent arrests and the fear they produce is no accident. During the Obama administration, under the slogan “Deporting Felons, Not Families,” there was an emphasis on removing people with criminal records, and a deliberate commitment to placing in much lower priority those who had established roots in US communities. Under the Trump administration, however, there has been a reversal of the previous prioritizing of cases, as well as an increased willingness on the part of agents to pursue individuals without criminal records.

A Cruel New Phase in Immigration Enforcement

We’ve reached, in the words of one commentator, a “cruel new phase” in pursuing undocumented immigrants in this country. In particular, family separation has become more common. This became clear as people around the country reacted to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated children from their parents at the US-Mexico border. Begun in April and since reversed and challenged in court, this practice resulted from a new focus on prosecuting parents and signaled a clear shift away from the principle of family unity that underlies US immigration law.

Beyond this debacle at the border, the fear of family separation remains real for the estimated 16.7 million people nationwide who are part of mixed-status families, living with at least one undocumented family member in the same household. The majority of those in mixed-status families — up to 6.6 million — are US citizens. Their livelihoods, health and dignity are affected by the detention and deportation of their family members.

As everyday, “layered” enforcement practices like those seen in border communities intensify across the country, families and entire communities experience routinized fear. These enhanced inspection practices have a profound impact on others, regardless of their own citizenship or migration status.

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