Know Your Rights When Traveling Near the United States Border

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    Know Your Rights When Traveling Near the United States Border

    From north to south, the United States spans about 1,500 miles. From east to west, the distance is about 2,800 miles. Many undocumented immigrants believe that the rules that govern their lives will be the same, no matter where they are along those two dimensions. Yet within 100 miles of the East and West Coasts, as well as the Canadian and Mexican borders, a different set of rules may apply.

    Border Zone Rules

    The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that authorities do not need probable cause to search persons and vehicles at border crossings as they are entering United States. The Court held that the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure does not forbid searches of people and vehicles who are still at the border. Relying on an old regulation, Border Patrol agents often contend that they have right to detain and search people anywhere within 100 miles of the border. The Supreme Court, however, has made clear that the border exception to the Fourth Amendment only applies at the border and at other entry points to the United States (such as international airports). The regulation authorizes U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to set up “immigration checkpoints” within 100 miles of the border. While CBP has not confirmed how many checkpoints it operates, news reports suggest that currently there may be as many as 170. Vehicles and individuals may be stopped at a checkpoint briefly so that Border Patrol agents can inquire about residential status. Individuals who cannot verify citizenship or legal presence in the country may be detained longer to investigate whether they entered or remained in the country without authorization.

    Constitutional Rights

    Once an individual has entered the country, the Fourth Amendment places limits on what law enforcement officers are allowed to do. An officer cannot usually stop or detain a person or vehicle unless the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person has violated the law. The Constitution also prohibits officers from searching vehicles unless they have probable cause to believe that something illegal is inside the vehicle. Individuals usually cannot be searched unless they have been arrested. These rights apply everywhere, even with the 100-mile Border Zone. While it may be permissible for Border Patrol agents to stop vehicles briefly at immigration checkpoints, they are not authorized to search vehicles unless they have probable cause that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime. Nor may Border Patrol agents randomly stop people who are walking down the sidewalk to ask for proof of citizenship, simply because they happens to be within the Border Zone.

    Border Zone Abuses

    News reports make clear that some Border Patrol agents do not understand the law or choose to ignore it. Through lack of training or a failure to discipline agents who violate the law, some Border Patrol agents have adopted the attitude that the Constitution does not apply within the Border Zone. That’s a problem because two-thirds of the people in the United States live within 100 miles of the border that is within 100 miles of US land or coastal border. Many people who may have violated immigration laws know that they should not go within 100 miles of the Mexican border like El Paso, but the Border Zones near the East Coast and the West Coast are also danger zones for immigrants (legal or not) who do not want to be stopped and questioned for no reason. According to ACLU data, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont lie entirely or almost entirely within this area. Coastal cities between Portland, Maine and Miami, Florida are also within the coastal zone. Many vacation spots like San Diego Zoo or Niagara Falls are clearly within the 100-mile zone as well. Several lawsuits have been filed against CBP and its roving groups of Border Patrol agents for detaining and searching individuals for no reason, sometimes well beyond the 100-mile boundary of the Border Zone. Complaints of abuse have risen sharply in the last few years, and they are not limited to the southern border.

    Protect Yourself

    Anyone in the United States who does not want to be stopped by the Border Patrol should be aware of the Border Zone. Most people who do not want to be stopped and detained know that they should avoid immigration checkpoints, but they do not always realize that visiting Niagara Falls in upstate New York might subject them to a Border Patrol encounter. When stopped by the Border Patrol (or any other law enforcement agent), people without documents should usually say “I will not answer your questions until I speak to a lawyer.” Physically resisting the police is always dangerous and usually illegal, but refusing to speak to the police is a constitutional right that belongs to everyone who is inside the nation’s borders. People who are detained should insist on speaking to an attorney as soon as possible. An immigration attorney is often able to arrange a release from detention until issues can be sorted out. And while it is wise to get legal advice before encountering the Border Patrol, it may also be wise to avoid the Border Zone as much as possible.