Evelyn made the journey from Mexico to Texas more than two decades ago to pursue a better life. But now, her life is constrained in other ways. Evelyn lives in the Rio Grande Valley, where multiple interior border checkpoints prevent undocumented immigrants from traveling north — unless they want to risk arrest and potential deportation.
This affects Evelyn’s ability to care for her son, David, who is both deaf and blind. The only school that can accommodate David is about 300 miles north in Austin. Evelyn can’t take him there herself. For years, she’s had to rely on friends.
“I’m afraid of taking him directly to the airport at Harlingen, so I drive halfway,” Evelyn told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “I have someone else drive the rest of the way.”
But David has developmental issues that prevent him from being able to communicate well. Once, David’s behavior caused flight attendants to kick him off the airplane at the Valley International Airport in Harlingen. Evelyn couldn’t pick him up. Another time, David missed his flight coming back from his school in Austin. She panicked, scrambling to find someone to help him get on another flight.
Aside from the transportation challenges, Evelyn also wishes she could participate in David’s treatment at school. “One of the first things that the teachers at the school told me was that I need to engage more over there, but I couldn’t,” Evelyn said. “They asked me ‘when are you going to come?’ I can’t go. Now he’s here but I see [that] he’s losing more communication skills. Instead of knowing 300 signs, he just knows a few.”
Evelyn — who doesn’t feel comfortable using her real name because of her undocumented status — is just one of many immigrants living in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley who are forced to define their lives between border checkpoints.
They asked me ‘when are you going to come?’ I can’t go.
In the name of national security, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operates 35 permanent and hundreds of “temporary” border checkpoints to crack down on drug smuggling. These checkpoints allow agents to check the citizenship status of people passing within 100 miles of a U.S. land or coastal border. In order to pass through, immigrants are required to present documents like a U.S. passport or a driver’s license.
In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these checkpoints are allowed as long as the stops involve a “limited inquiry into residence status” and a visual inspection of the car. Now, about 200 million people live in what the American Civil Liberties Union refers to as a “constitution-free” zone where they can be subject to checkpoints.
Undocumented immigrants stuck in this zone don’t go north because they’re afraid of being subjected to immigration proceedings. They also don’t go south past the U.S.-Mexico border because of what they left behind.
And undocumented immigrants aren’t the only ones who can be stopped at these checkpoints. In 2014, the ACLU sued the government on behalf of 15 U.S. citizens who believed they had been unjustly harassed at border checkpoints. Hundreds more U.S. citizens have uploaded videos showing border agents harassing or abusing them at the checkpoints.
For immigrants living in the Valley who are stuck in a similar situation as Evelyn, problems particularly crop up when they need to access basic health care.
At some checkpoints, border agents can go so far as to stop ambulances to check the immigration status of patients. In one case, an immigrant with a broken foot was allowed past a checkpoint to get treatment, but was told he would later be detained. He now has a pending immigration case, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Immigrant women are especially at risk now that Texas has slashed family planning funding and shut down clinics in the Valley. Even legal immigrant women who need birth control or cancer screenings are too afraid of crossing the checkpoints because they fear immigration enforcement.
Some people have missed funerals of loved ones within the United States because they can’t move past checkpoints.
Crossing the interior checkpoints could be made much simpler if there’s a federal solution to the broken immigration system. Evelyn is holding out for comprehensive immigration reform, but she is also just as hopeful for a temporary fix like President Obama’s executive action known as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Residents (DAPA).
DAPA would grant undocumented parents of legal U.S. citizens with the ability to secure a Social Security number needed to get a state identification card or driver’s license — something that could help Evelyn, since David has citizenship. But it’s been tied up in the U.S. Supreme Court because of a multi-state, Republican-led lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the initiative.
Evelyn hopes DAPA is upheld so that her family can benefit from David’s continued therapy sessions. Because of the difficult nature of transporting him to his sessions, he hasn’t been able to attend for the past six months, causing him to regress.
“It would be good most of all for him because he’ll be able to go back to school,” Evelyn said. “If I have DAPA, I will be with my two children and build a better life for both.”