Above: When a driver approaches a Border Patrol checkpoint, the drill is to pull off the highway, wait in line, and then a Border Patrol agent will ask, “Are you an American citizen?” This driver refuses to answer the question. Credit: Screen grab from YouTube video: “Top DHS check point refusals”
ACLU on Check Points
Above: David Loy, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego and Imperial Counties, talks to KPBS
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Statement
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — If you drive across the American Southwest, near the Mexico border, you are likely to encounter a Border Patrol checkpoint. These roadside stations are set up to check immigration status.
What happens next is an open question.
When a driver approaches a Border Patrol checkpoint, the drill is to pull off the highway, wait in line, and then a Border Patrol agent will ask, “Are you an American citizen?”
If you answer “yes,” in most instances you’ll soon be back on the road.
But what happens if you refuse to answer?
That’s what some people are doing and their videos are a YouTube sensation. It’s not quite the Harlem Shake, but motorists who shake off questions from Border Patrol agents, are seeing their videos go viral.
One video showing a compilation of refusals has more than 400,000 views since it was posted just over a month ago. The montage of checkpoint stops all show drivers refusing to answer the Border Patrol’s favorite question: Are you an American citizen?
Terry Bressi lives in Southern Arizona and has videotaped about 250 checkpoint experiences where he’s refused to answer Border Patrol questions. “It really is a smack across the face of any liberty loving American,” said Bressi, who writes the blog CheckpointUSA.org.
Although Bressi has posted several of his check point videos on Youtube, he says the purpose of recording his interaction is protection.
“My primary purpose in having the video cameras running while I’m going through a check point is not so I can have cool video to make for YouTube. It’s to protect myself legally,” said Bressi.
Bressi claims without the videotape the Border Patrol agents would be free to invent probable cause and detain him simply because they don’t like his attitude.
Adriana Pinon, a lawyer for the ACLU, says these YouTube videos show what happens when people exercise one of their fundamental rights.
“One always has the right to remain silent. So in the video you do see people asserting that right and an individual has a constitutional right to remain silent even at a check point,” said Pinon.
The Border Patrol would not comment for this story but said most Americans cooperate at the checkpoint and there’s no indication of a growing number of people refusing to answer their questions.
The real issue here is a dispute over whether or not these checkpoints violate the U.S. Constitution. The Border Patrol says they do not, and Pinon agrees.
“The courts have decided that because they are such a brief intrusion upon a person’s liberty, privacy and interests that it is constitutional,” she said.
But Bressi disputes that. He claims the checkpoints are unconstitutional because the Supreme Court ruled they should be used only for immigration purposes.
He believes the question — “are you an American citizen?” — is actually a ruse used by the Border Patrol to get drivers to stop, be scanned, tracked, recorded and sniffed by drug dogs, which he said are all violations of the Constitution.
“It’s not border security, it’s internal security,” Bressi said.
Top DHS checkpoint refusals
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve changed the headline to clarify these check points take place within the United States — not at the ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico Border. In addition we removed a line from the story that said that each driver that confronted the Border Patrol was allowed to drive away. In fact some of the videos show officers taking a more aggressive response.