‘You are most likely not going to leave ever’: Border communities are divided by invisible barriers

"The moment I see the gun, I get scared and I’m going to be as compliant as possible."

AN INTERIOR CHECKPOINT ON I-25 BETWEEN THE NEW MEXICAN CITIES OF LAS CRUCES AND HATCH. (PHOTO: VICTORIA FLEISCHER)
AN INTERIOR CHECKPOINT ON I-25 BETWEEN THE NEW MEXICAN CITIES OF LAS CRUCES AND HATCH. (PHOTO: VICTORIA FLEISCHER)

Las Cruces, New Mexico has been the only home that Brandon Vasquez, a 20-year-old immigrant originally from Mexico, has known since he arrived in this border community at the age of two. Vasquez is on the verge of graduating with an associate’s degree in architecture, and in an ideal world, he would be polishing up his resume to apply for internships. Instead, he will spend the next four months preparing for a cascading series of events: job loss, the inability to graduate, and potential deportation.

In May, Vasquez will become fully undocumented without deportation protections and work authorization. At that time, his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status — originally a stop-gap executive action put in place by the Obama administration to force Congress to pass permanent immigration legislation — expires. In September, the White House announced the program will begin to phase out on March 5, 2018. Recipients whose DACA status expires before the March 2018 date had a chance to renew their statuses for one final two-year DACA extension, but everyone else will revert to their original status.

Vasquez’s DACA status expires in May, which made him ineligible to renew his application. Without the Obama-era program in place, Vasquez can’t legally keep his job as a student tutor at the Doña Ana Community College he attends. That also means he can’t continue his education without the money he earns, leaving him one semester shy of graduation. 

“I guess my plan right now as I know…is just to keep a savings account and have money to have when my permit expires,” Vasquez told ThinkProgress in an interview in mid-December. “When my permit expires, that means that I will not be able to work… so I won’t have a source that gives me money to keep on surviving.”

Vasquez is going through similar emotions as the approximately 122 DACA recipients who have lost their status every day since September. But he’s also in the unique position of living roughly 45 miles north of the southern U.S. border where permanent interior checkpoints jut out west, north, and east through the only roads out of Las Cruces.

At these checkpoints, border agents can stop drivers to search for drugs and question them about their immigration status. Drivers or passengers can be detained and potentially put into deportation proceedings if they are found to be undocumented. Later this year, Vasquez won’t have his DACA status to grant him the ability to say he’s lawfully present in the country and pass through checkpoint into other parts of the United States. 

‘Borders on top of borders’

Over and over, the president has claimed the need for a border wall and more border agents along the southern U.S.-Mexico international line, tying these funding requests to national security and public safety concerns.“We’re going to have borders on top of borders,” Trump promised in December. He has continued to hammer away at the request, including just days before the January 19 deadline for Congress to pass a spending bill to prevent a government shutdown. What’s currently holding up the spending bill is a disagreement on immigration legislation. Republican lawmakers are demanding that permanent protections for immigrants who came to the country as kids, like Vasquez, should only be offered in exchange for harsh measures that would include additional funding for the border wall, more border security enhancements, and the elimination of various legal forms of entry. Some Democrats won’t help pass the spending bill with such harsh measures; Republicans won’t budge without them. 

But Trump’s repeated call for a border wall ignores the reality on the ground. To live in Las Cruces means to live under surveillance. Stacks of cameras line major street intersections in the city. Every so often, residents see uniformed U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents conduct roving patrols in local hangouts and public spaces like parks and schools. 

So hyper-vigilant are federal immigration agents driving the streets that one agent pulled over and questioned ThinkProgress journalists for shooting scenes of the city. After looking through our footage and letting us go, the agent followed our rental car for roughly ten to 15 minutes on the road. Without explanation, he drove away but only after taking a photo of the car’s rear license plate. If journalists protected by the First Amendment can feel intimidated for doing nothing wrong, we imagined Las Cruces residents like Vasquez undoubtedly come into contact at much greater frequency and with far fewer polite interactions with federal immigration agents. 

Data from border states appear to back up the notion that federal law enforcement officers routinely watch and stop certain populations at greater frequency. In Arizona, there’s ample evidence that federal immigration agents often pull over the Latinx community on suspicion of being undocumented. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New Mexico released a report in 2015 documenting 56 instances of racial profiling, extensive questioning, and harassment against southern New Mexican residents by federal immigration agents who, the ACLU said, have broad authority to make people feel “guilty until proven innocent.”

Anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 undocumented immigrants live in Las Cruces, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and they have felt the greatest impact of every administration’s vision of border security. In 2016, for example, the Obama administration put up tall steel fences in 2016 in Sunland Park, the closest border fence to Las Cruces, fulfilling the promise made by the Bush administration’s 2006 Secure Fence Act. Additional border security measures by the Trump administration will undoubtedly affect the immigrant population and communities of color the most.

Trump has proudly said he would “take the shackles off” of federal agents to pursue immigrants with unhinged intensity. His campaign promises, rhetoric, and harsh policies contributed to a 42 percent increase in the number of apprehensions by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency between November 2016 and September 2017, as compared to the same time period a year earlier. Similar in mission to its sister CBP agency, the ICE agency is responsible for detaining and removing people from inside the United States. After he took office, Trump authorized an executive order seeking funding for an additional 5,000 border agents to add to its current staff of 19,500 border agents. The CBP agency has aimed to have 26,370 total agents by 2021, loosening some requirements to make it easier to reach recruitment targets in recent years, as Foreign Policy reported.

The invisible border

Aside from an increase in the number of border agents, what’s often overlooked in the conversation on border security are “interior zones.” About 140 checkpoints that do not touch international borders exist up to 100 miles into the interior of the United States. The CBP agency operates three types of in-land traffic checking operations. There are permanent checkpoints, which are maintained on highways and important roads leading away from the border; tactical checkpoints, which operate like permanent checkpoints but are set up in other strategic locations; and roving patrols, which allow agents to stop vehicles only if they suspect that there’s an undocumented immigrant in the car. 

Under a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, border agents can stop vehicles at fixed checkpoints for brief questioning to search for drugs and ask for immigration status. The court also ruled that it was constitutional for agents to refer motorists for secondary inspection for additional questioning. A 1975 Supreme Court case ruling found that agents can conduct roving patrols if they have reasonable suspicion that a car contained undocumented occupants. But border residents say regardless of the kind of stop, agents have wide discretion. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has about 140 permanent and tactical checkpoints on the interior of the United States to interdict drugs and stop unauthorized immigration.. (Photo: Border Patrol data via U.S. Governmental Accountability Office)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has about 140 permanent and tactical checkpoints on the interior of the United States to interdict drugs and stop unauthorized immigration.. (Photo: Border Patrol data via U.S. Governmental Accountability Office)

“The border patrol has the authority to set up these checkpoints within the hundred mile border zone, this is the area…where the government gives the border patrol more power to set up these checkpoints and to basically have more authority,” said Cynthia Pompa, a field organizer with the ACLU Regional Center for Border Rights. 

It’s unclear whether interior checkpoints have fully accomplished the goal of drug interdiction. Nearly 40 percent of all drug seizures at these checkpoints were of one ounce or less of marijuana from U.S. citizens, according to a November 2017 U.S. Governmental Accountability Office report, whereas drugs were seized at “higher-quantities” from immigrants at non-checkpoint locations.

What has been clear is that these interior checkpoints essentially trap immigrant communities within the confines of Las Cruces and its surrounding localities.

“Permanent checkpoints set up by Border Patrol — that sort of cages people in if you’re undocumented,” said Johana Bencomo, a community organizer of the activist group New Mexico Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (CAFé). “And you live in this community, you are most likely not going to leave ever…in some cases west of Las Cruces, [you] have to drive all the way to Arizona. Whether it’s for medical purposes or any other services as well too, [you may have to] drive to Albuquerque. So basic necessities and access to life is very difficult.”

One of the most peculiar aspects of this policy can be seen in the nearby, small community of Chaparral, which is divided by both a county line and an interior checkpoint. One side of Chaparral lies in Doña Ana County; the other in Otero County. The seat of Doña Ana County is Las Cruces. The seat of Otero County is Alamogordo, where an interior checkpoint exists. Immigrants who live in Otero County cannot access certain public services, like judges.

Cynthia Pompa, a field organizer with the ACLU Regional Center for Border Rights, points out the county line dividing two counties:  Doña Ana and Otero. The seat of Otero County is in Alamogordo where an interior checkpoint exists. (Photo: Victoria Fleischer)
Cynthia Pompa, a field organizer with the ACLU Regional Center for Border Rights, points out the county line dividing two counties: Doña Ana and Otero. The seat of Otero County is in Alamogordo where an interior checkpoint exists. (Photo: Victoria Fleischer)

“If you are a victim of domestic violence [in Chaparral] and you want to press charges and follow through with a case, your court will be in the town of Alamogordo, which is about an hour and 30 minutes away from town,” Pompa said. “Unfortunately, there’s a Border Patrol checkpoint in between so for folks who are undocumented, who are unable to travel past the checkpoints, and are required to show up in court, it is impossible for them to do.”

Sister Maria Isabel Galbe — better known as Sister Chabela — of the social justice-minded Assumption Sisters of the Flor y Canto convent based in Chaparral, told ThinkProgress about an immigrant woman who was unable to attend court proceedings to get back the title on her trailer and a piece of land from a callous landowner.

“She received a letter from Otero County from the judge in Alamogordo with a citation to be present because the owner is calling her to the court to adjust the situation,” Chabela said at the convent. “Our friend doesn’t have papers so she cannot go and pass and speak to the judge that this lady in front of him is a crooked woman abusing the immigrant people.”

“The situation and limitation is for a lot of people.”

Eventually, Chabela and another Assumption Sister found out that the woman didn’t need to be present in court, so they showed up at separate courts in Otero County and in Doña Ana County to pay for taxes and reinstate the title for the woman.

“Our friend had the title of her own trailer,” Chabela said. “It is wonderful for one case, but the situation and limitation is for a lot of people.”

These checkpoints, an unnatural invisible barrier, have a way of keeping everyone feeling like they do not belong. They also keep many brown activists, even if they are U.S. citizens, scared and intimidated.

“Being a U.S. citizen in the borderlands, being a brown U.S. citizen in the borderland means that you will consistently have to prove who you are,” Bencomo said. “That you will consistently be questioned, more importantly, about your status and that it is legal.”

Bencomo and another CAFé organizer Allex Luna teach people that U.S. citizens have the right to not respond to agents. Yet Bencomo admits that even while she records every encounter she has with border agents, she responds to their questioning every time.

“Every single time I go through a border patrol checkpoint, I tense up,” Bencomo added. “I get nervous. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve lived here. And it still gives me anxiety. And every single time, I turn on the camera on my phone.”

“The moment I see the gun, I get scared and I’m going to be as compliant as possible.”

Luna also said interior checkpoints make him feel like a “stranger that isn’t valued and isn’t seen.

“When I answer, it’s the same thing,” Luna said. “I toughen up, I pump myself up, I’m not going to answer these questions. And the moment I see the gun, I get scared and I’m going to be as compliant as possible.”


In the latest policy showdown in Washington, D.C., some Democrats say they won’t vote through a must-pass government spending bill without permanent protections for so-called DREAMers like Vasquez whose DACA expiration put them at imminent risk of deportation. The president has said he would agree to a DACA deal so long as it includes funding for the border wall, enhanced border security measures, an end to the diversity visa lottery process, and the elimination of family-based migration, which grants legal entry to family members of U.S. residents and which the president refers to as “chain migration.” 

“Unfortunately, the border has become so political,” Pompa said. “We’ve become bargaining chips when Congress is trying to make decisions that end up affecting us, severely affecting a lot of people.”

The organizers at CAFé, Pompa, and Vasquez are reflective of the residents embedded in a region that national lawmakers are trying to paint as dangerous public safety threats. Yet all individuals insist that they feel safe in Las Cruces, calling into question the perceived threats for which lawmakers want budgetary funding.

“Here…people understand that it’s hard to get money…most of my friends are immigrants as well,” Vasquez explained. “We’re not here to back-stab people or rape people or commit crimes. I don’t usually see that in my community. What I usually see is people going to school, going to work, or just trying to live their own lives.”

“The message we want to give the rest of the country is the borderlands are beautiful,” Pompa insisted. “We have great places, [the] safest cities are on the border. We have amazing mountains, amazing sunsets, but also amazing people.”

Funding for this trip was made possible by the PICO National Network, a “national network of faith-based community organizations working to create innovative solutions to problems facing urban, suburban and rural communities.”