Driving in the "Constitution-Free Zone"

One hundred miles into the interior of the United States was deemed a "constitution-free zone" by the American Civil Liberties Union. On this occasion, while driving home from work—from the border town of Douglas to Tucson, Arizona—L. Cruz challenges this federal power to stop and question people at the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint located near Tombstone, Arizona.
l.cruz 9/20/2012

On September 12, I am driving on my way home from work. It is an approximately two and a half hour drive to Tucson from the border town of Douglas, Arizona. Looking at my rear view mirror I can see the beautiful lights of Douglas and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico spilling into each other’s countries. The mere illusion of cities and people coexisting without borders gives me hope for a fleeting moment. But this idea of a place where neighbors can live in peace without Border Patrol vehicles, steel walls, or barbed wire separating them, seems impossible with the entrenched militarization evident all around me. This is not only directly on the border but extending into the interior at a startlingly rapid rate.

Thirty miles later, and away from the U.S.-Mexico border, with dread I pull into the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint outside of Tombstone, Arizona. It is now late, and I feel vulnerable and alone.

Earlier in the day, I was in a rural town working with immigrant victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. I travel to these isolated areas because the checkpoints prevent undocumented people from accessing services in the bigger cities. Many advocates like me have to travel to clients because they do not have access to basic human rights in militarized zones.

However, while I might have all my credentials and a professional demeanor, there is no exception if you are a person of color traveling through a checkpoint. Even officials from the Mexican Consulate get searched and questioned at these checkpoints while traveling in clearly-labeled diplomatic vehicles.

The American Civil Liberties Union calls the 100-mile-wide-strip that wraps around the “‘external boundary’ of the United States” the “Constitution-Free Zone.” This means that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have “extraordinary authority that would not normally be permitted under the constitution.” These types of stops are also known as “Administrative Stops,” which are random and arbitrary stops and searches.

As I approach the checkpoint about a mile to the north of Tombstone, I realize that I am the only car for miles around. There are many men in forest green uniforms wearing utility belts weighed down by weapons. The landscape becomes hostile as you cross the threshold and enter into the checkpoint. What was once a sleepy highway lit by moonlight and stars is now stadium lights glaring into my eyes. The reality is very clear that if anything were to happen to me, I would be alone and Border Patrol, as has been shown over a1256Border Patrol checkpoint outside of Tubac, Arizona. Photo by peppergrasss (flickr)nd over again, would work with impunity. I pull up to where an agent is standing.

“U.S. Citizen?”

The young white agent looks at me with suspicion before I can answer his question. He has blue eyes and a military style haircut. He has a baby face and looks scared. I think that he is probably still in training. There is an innocence to him that makes me feel that had this kid been given born to more elite circles, he would have chosen another path. Who dreams about working at a checkpoint?


He starts looking at the back seat of my car. My car is visibly clean and empty.

“Is this your car?”

Something inside me screams, “Don’t you answer that question!” I know that from my training and experience as a human rights activist that I don’t have to answer that question. I have had unfavorable encounters before with CBP, and I promised myself that I wasn’t going to let them dehumanize me again under the guise of securing the border. I also know that I had to take advantage of the “rights” that still exist for me, and remind those who abuse power that there are still some of us who will challenge their abuse. 

“Is this your car?”

“That is none of your concern. I’m a U.S. citizen, and I am free to go.”

“It is my concern. Do you have ID? Let me see your ID.”

“I am a U.S. citizen, and I am free to go. I do not need to show you my ID. This is a checkpoint, not a Port of Entry. Am I being detained?”

“Yes, you are being detained. Pull over to secondary.”

“Fine, I am calling my lawyer.”

I drive my car to the side of the checkpoint.

Before I can dial my lawyer, a Latino CBP agent approaches the car. I turn off the car. He identifies himself as the supervisor. He is polite, almost as if he were playing the “good cop” in the good cop-bad cop scenario. He is the supervisor and the fact that I am questioning procedure would later be comical to him.  

“I just spoke to the agent, and I want to get your impression of us.”

“I am a U.S. citizen, and I am free to go. I need to go home.”

The first agent brings over a drug sniffing dog and circles my car without my consent. I remain inside the car.

“Am I being detained?”

The CBP Supervisor ignores me and continues to question me.

“Don’t you know there are illegals who try to cross, that your behavior is suspicious? I’m a federal officer.”

“I know that you are a federal officer. This is a checkpoint, not a port of entry. I am a U.S. citizen, and I am free to go.”

“I just want to know your thoughts and impressions of us.”

This is brought up multiple times. He also repeatedly identifies himself as a federal officer. I believe that he is identifying himself as a federal officer in hopes that I would ask for forgiveness for challenging the federal government. It is exhausting and ridiculous, but that is how it feels when you are interrogated.

“I don’t think it’s your job to question me about what impression I have of you.”

“We want to know why you are behaving this way.”

“I don’t appreciate racial profiling.”

“This isn’t racial profiling. There are illegals crossing.”

It is painful to listen to anyone using the word “illegal” to refer to another human being. The supervisor has a dark complexion, and I can’t help but wonder if he was not in the uniform and was wearing something else, if he too would have been detained along with me or questioned needlessly because he was driving while being brown.

“Yes this is racial profiling. If I had blond hair and blue eyes you would have just let me go through.”

“I am a federal officer, and this is an immigration checkpoint.”

“I am a U.S. citizen, and I am free to travel within my country without showing documentation.”

“No that’s not true. You have to show your papers.”

“Yes, to state officers, not to federal officers. I am a U.S. citizen, and I am free to go.”

“I am a federal officer.”

In hindsight, I should have stopped engaging in the conversation. However, one never knows how they are going to react when put in a very tense situation.

“I know my taxpayer dollars are why you have a job. Am I being detained?”

“I pay taxes too. I pay about $30,000 a year in taxes. People tell me that all the time.”

“You are free to call local law enforcement to check my ID, because I am not going to show you my ID or what’s inside of my car. I am done talking to you. Am I free to go?”

I now question my suggestion that CBP call local law enforcement to check my ID or car, but at that point I would rather have had state officials take over my “detention” than federal officers. Simply, I am thinking about what is safer for me.

“Yes you are free to go.”

I drive forward and am relieved to go but am still shaking with anger and fear. In the “constitution-free zone” you never know what can happen to you—you can be detained, deported, or even shot—and this is why Arizona and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands are an unsafe place to live.



Cruz is a longtime immigrant rights activist and community organizer in Southern Arizona. She has worked with groups like BorderLinks, Tucson Samaritanos, No More Deaths, Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, Pan Left Productions, and Migra Patrol Copwatch. Cruz has a degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Arizona and is currently working as a legal advocate for immigrants who are victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. She is also producing a film about savage capitalism and LGBTQ issues. Check out http://avessobrebarro.com/

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.