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When a clean car makes you suspect


A friend who also lives in Tuscon, Ariz., recently said to me, “Remember the good old days when United States citizens could drive freely from city to city?”

We were commiserating about how life for residents of the Southwest has changed. A continuously beefed up U.S. border patrol working with the U.S. military has meant that more of us, particularly people of color, are being stopped and searched in the course of our travels within the United States. Not crossing international borders -- just driving from point to point inside the country.

My friend, Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko, herself has been subject to several random searches. No matter that she is a winner of both a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a MacArthur fellowship. To agents she is just another brown face, another “illegal alien” and/or potential drug smuggler threatening the American way of life.

The same thing happened to nationally syndicated columnist Roberto Rodriguez, who also happens to be an acclaimed champion of civil and human rights. In 1979 police clubs rained down on his skull, causing extensive injuries, when he dared to snap pictures of Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies beating up a young Chicano, Rodney King style. Rodriguez was charged with assaulting officers with a deadly weapon -- his camera. Eventually he was cleared of charges, and in 1988 he won a lawsuit against the deputies.

Given his history, Rodriguez was only too happy to cooperate when border patrol agents detained him for almost 45 minutes outside of Las Cruces, N.M., last September.

Rodriguez was driving home to Albuquerque after giving speeches in Los Angeles and Tucson about his new book, Codex Temuanchan: On Becoming Human, which explores issues of Chicano identity.

He arrived at the border patrol’s Las Cruces checkpoint on I-25 and stated that he is a U.S. citizen. In response to further questioning, Rodriguez explained that he’d been to Los Angeles and Tucson.

At that point, with no explanation, agents initiated a canine search of the car. As dogs sniffed, three agents and two plain clothes officers took apart seats and other car parts. Rodriguez was taken to a nearby office. There, he underwent extensive questioning as to his comings and goings as two armed guards kept watch.

“I felt as if I’d entered the twilight zone,” said Rodriguez, recounting the experience.

Afterwards, Rodriguez tried to get an explanation for his detention. After a series of non-answers, Rodriguez said, he decided to file a complaint.

In the past decade, the U.S. border patrol has come under fire from groups such as Americas Watch, the American Friends Service Committee and Amnesty International for abuses by agents and a failure to investigate complaints.

Faced with mounting pressure, the patrol has trumpeted its supposed willingness to hear any and all complaints. I recently talked with Doug Mozier about Rodriguez’s situation and others like it; Mozier is public affairs officer for the agency’s El Paso, Texas, sector, which includes New Mexico and parts of West Texas.

Mozier spoke of special hot lines, public forums and various complaint processes aimed at improving relations between the border patrol and the community. He assured me that the agency welcomes criticism in its effort to improve the way it operates.

The spirit of Mozier’s comments contrasts starkly, however, with the tone of the response Rodriguez received from Alan Gordon, the acting chief border patrol agent for the sector.

In a letter responding to Rodriguez’s complaint, Gordon maintained, among other things, that the border patrol does not “consider it appropriate to express an opinion to persons outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service on legal issues.”

Gordon goes on to cite various laws that give agents broad discretion when it comes to questioning anybody “about your immigration status and other suspicious circumstances.”

The letter lists the following as factors that led to the decision to detain Rodriguez: He’d been traveling a “nondirect route,” that is from Los Angeles to Albuquerque via Tucson.

Considering that Rodriguez needed to give speeches in Los Angeles and Tucson and that he lives in Albuquerque, what other route could he have taken?

The letter also alleges that Rodriguez had a “rental” car and that articles such as clothing, toiletries or foodstuffs -- items “consistent with persons in travel” were nowhere in sight.

In fact, Rodriguez had a leased car. And his personal items were in the trunk along with stacks of books. “I plead guilty to a clean car,” Rodriguez told me.

After speaking with Mozier, I questioned Ramiro Garcia, a senior border patrol agent who works out of Las Cruces. Garcia allowed that had agents questioned Rodriguez first (before the dogs and detention), they might have learned of the book tour and saved everyone the hassle.

Mistakes are made, Garcia said. Still, “Agents are very experienced in what they do,” he said. In the El Paso sector alone (125,000 square miles), more than $190 million worth of narcotics have been nabbed during fiscal year 1999, Garcia explained.

Too bad the agency isn’t required to do an equally detailed accounting of the numbers of innocent people detained in the name of the drug war. When I asked why agents don’t keep such records, Mozier and Garcia said it would be too hard given the volume of traffic moving through the checkpoints.

I find that reasoning hard to swallow. A primitive adding machine could do the trick.

Maritza Broce, a community organizer with the Southern Arizona People’s Law Center in Tucson, has been monitoring border issues for years.

“Innocent people are harassed on a daily -- hourly -- basis. Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence?” she said. “Furthermore, they haven’t shown us that increased enforcement has reduced the use of drugs. ... In the meantime, how many of our rights are we going to have to give up?” said Broce.

Said Rodriguez: “This isn’t even an issue of immigration. I was traveling to non-border cities. I’m a U.S. citizen.”

Rodriguez is also a Latino: offspring of the Spanish conquest, descended from people indigenous to the Americas. And he can’t hide his Indian blood. He is as dark as chocolate. For decades, he has written about the irony that those of us who have been on this continent the longest are the ones most likely to be singled out as suspect: Between the drug war and anti-immigrant hysteria, we are viewed as strangers in our own land.

But in his fight for dignity for all people, Rodriguez is not afraid to bear arms. When agents asked Rodriguez if he had any weapons on him, he said, “I carry pens.”

Readers interested in obtaining Rodriguez’s book may contact him at XColumn@aol.com or at (505) 242-7282.

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson. She is the author of a novel, Mother Tongue, published by Bilingual Press.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999