Q&A—Siege Mentality: the Border Patrol’s Northern Advance

"What we’ve been doing for a long time is trying to raise awareness about these official actions, whether they be by the state police, local police, or Border Patrol—law enforcement agencies that are roving around, knocking on doors, pulling cars over, taking people off the steps of churches, taking people out of grocery stores, drug stores, or following kids home from school."
Todd Miller 11/26/2013

Border Wars' Todd Miller talks with John "Lory" Ghertner, a doctor who is a member of the Greater Rochester Coalition for Immigration Justice. For more background information on Border Patrol operations in Sodus and Rochester, see this article written here for Border Wars in July, 2012. 

Q: When people think about border or immigration enforcement they usually think about Arizona or Texas. Are you saying border enforcement is happening in the state of New York?

Yes, I’ve had this conversation with a lot of other people. You’re right that the discussion is about people crossing in Arizona or Texas. But they don’t talk about the fact that once migrants cross the border, that’s just really the beginning of their struggle. If they survive crossing the border, then they have to survive getting to their destination. And for a lot of folks their destination is this part of the country—Sodus, New York, near Rochester.

They get here and the whole thing starts over again. They’re getting targeted here just like they are on the Mexican border. So there’s this constant siege mentality that leads to the same sort of survival mentality as crossing the border. People are hiding, not being seen in public on purpose.

Border Patrol has told me publicly that its agents are sitting in their cars looking out into Lake Ontario, waiting apparently for Mexicans to swim across Lake Ontario from Canada. But these people are not coming from the north, they are coming from the south. So I picture the commander of the Border Patrol sitting in his car, I don’t know, drinking a beer—I don’t know what they’re doing sitting there, you know? And all the action is happening right behind him. The Border Patrol agents behind him are picking up all the farmworkers.

They’re proud of the fact that they’ve picked up more undocumented people in the Rochester area than anywhere along the northern border. It’s the same siege mentality that migrants face when they avoid all these checkpoints in the southwest. And they get here and they think they have it made. But lo and behold, the Border Patrol is here too. Norman Mailer said, “things that are true can be fiction.” So the things that happen here aren’t true, because the things here only happen in Texas. The idea that they don’t happen up here—that’s the fiction.

2179 Photo by John GhertnerQ: Is this a significant change from five years—a drastic change from the past?

Yeah, you know some years ago there was one corner of town where you’d see an INS agent parked on the corner talking to somebody. You wouldn’t see them patrolling. You wouldn’t see them driving through the village of Sodus at five miles per hour. You wouldn’t see them driving back and forth in front of the church. You wouldn’t see them driving through the trailer park where they know there must be 50 to 100 Hispanics living there. You wouldn’t see them driving through there. You’d never see them setting up a road block in front of a laundromat. You definitely wouldn’t see them following people into a CVS. All of this is new.

Q: Is there one incident or story you can tell that describes what is happening now in Sodus and the area?

I’ve got two that have just happened. One is very typical. Before, we talked about state police setting up roadblocks where they would stop everyone and ask the vehicles seemingly driven by Hispanics to pull over to where a Border Patrol agent was waiting for them. That’s not happening as much right now. But we’re looking for that to start up again.

Here’s an example of something that’s happening now: Lorena was at the local grocery store right here in Sodus. When she was leaving and she backed out, she clipped another car. There was little damage to the car, but the New York State Police were called because of a supposed "car accident." A State Police trooper came and took the statement. And then they called Border Patrol. This woman is now in deportation hearings because of that. All very typical.

Here’s another one—the “best” one: His name is Jose, for the sake of conversation. This happened just east of here. Jose had a muffler that was too loud, although the car had previously passed inspection and had an inspection sticker. A State Police officer pulled him over, saying his muffler was too loud. Jose went and bought a new muffler, put it in, went back to the state police station, and the officer got rid of the ticket. The next day he drove into another town and was pulled over by another state trooper. And guess what he was pulled over for? Muffler being too loud. So then he went out and bought a third new muffler because he kept getting pulled over. So quite clearly, this was profiling by the State Police.

Fortunately Jose has a green card. They asked him for his papers, of course. In New York State you have to have your papers to get your driver’s license. Driver’s licenses were taken away from people without documents about five years ago. So when Jose presented his driver’s license, he presented a legal document. They didn’t believe that, of course. They didn’t accept that.

This is the classic siege mentality that we’re dealing with here, even for people who have papers. Of course, if he didn’t have his green card, he’d be sitting in the Buffalo federal detention center right now.

These scenarios with Lorena and Jose are two of the main scenarios we are dealing with right now.

The other one is that ICE is going and picking people right off the street. This has never been done before. Well, you know, if there’s a criminal out there, are they going after the criminal? Yeah. But picking up ordinary people like this is new.

Q: Just walking down the street?

Yeah, just south of here ICE picked up two people just walking out of a restaurant.

Q: Were they waiting for them?

Oh yeah, they were waiting for them. They clearly knew who they were. And that’s not an isolated case. About a month ago I had to bail out the father of one of my students, from Batavia, from the Buffalo federal detention center. The same thing happened.

These are the two main scenarios. Police are pulling people over for tailights, or the muffler is too loud, or there is a minor accident. And ICE hunting people on the streets.

Q: What are you doing to organize in Sodus and Rochester?

Right now we are calling lawyers from the NYCLU and lawyers and students from the immigration clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University to develop an argument to give to Governor Cuomo about the actions of his police forces. So we’re going out and getting statements from those who have been detained because of state police. That’s the most recent thing.

What we’ve been doing for a long time is trying to raise awareness about these official actions, whether they be by the state police, local police, or Border Patrol—law enforcement agencies that are roving around, knocking on doors, pulling cars over, taking people off the steps of churches, taking people out of grocery stores, drug stores, or following kids home from school.

I believe we have affected some change. There’s a lot less activity than there used to be. But they’re hitting other towns around Sodus. I mean they were here every day. Literally they were here every day. If the Border Patrol was around, the community knew where they were. And we’d actually get in our cars and follow them. We wouldn’t tailgait them, but we’d follow them. They’d pull over to the side of the road and we’d pull over on the side of the road. If they made a stop we’d walk up to them and document what was going on. One time they even called the Sheriff’s Department. The Border Patrol called the police because they were afraid for their own safety. We were “stalking” them. There was a local priest and 20 year old mother with babies in the back and we were stalking the Border Patrol who has guns and tasers.

Q: How can someone support you?

People need to realize that this is not only along a 50-mile stretch along the southern border. That’s the most important thing that people have to understand—that the conversation has to change. I’m not saying that Sodus is worse than any place else, but I think Sodus, Rochester, represents the mentality of police forces everywhere. The most important thing any one can do is to educate. This is more than an issue in Arizona, California, and Texas. This is a problem in the entire country. And I think some of this in Sodus is a microcosm of everything that represents the siege mentality for the entire country. There are kids who fear that they are going to lose their parents every day.



Todd Miller has researched and written about U.S.-Mexican border issues for more than 10 years. He has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog Border Wars, among other places. His forthcoming book, Border Patrol Nation Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, will be published by City Light's Open Media Series in the Spring of 2014.


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