Every day in southern New Mexico, the United States Border Patrol sets up at permanent stations along Interstates 25 and 10, and other highways, and diverts traffic off the roadway into checkpoints.
The purpose is to intercept people who are in the United States illegally or to find drugs or other contraband being smuggled in. Agents channel every car off the highway and ask the driver, “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
Thousands and thousands of travelers routinely answer “yes,” are waved on and continue their travels. A few find the question intrusive and have helped launch a movement to refuse to answer.
And, on occasion, someone is busy looking at the scenery, confuses the checkpoint with a weigh station for truckers and blows right by.
Let’s let Timothy Blomquist tell his story.
“My wife and I, we ride motorcycles. She’s got a Harley and I’ve got a Triumph. This past July Fourth weekend, we left Farmington and we went on a 1,460-mile motorcycle trip. Eastern Arizona, down the side of New Mexico. We spent Friday night, the Fourth of July, in Las Cruces.
“The next day, it was late morning, we were heading back north on I-25. The wife was ahead of me and I’m riding along, and I’m looking off to the left to the Rio Grande Valley and the homes and the farms. I just kind of lost myself in thought. And the next thing I know, I look ahead of me and I see my wife’s brake lights. And I see these cones. And I think, what the heck is this about? To me, it looked like one of those weigh stations for trucks. And there’s a break in the cones, and I go through it and I just keep riding on.”
Unbeknownst to Blomquist, he had failed to stop at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint – this one between Las Cruces and Hatch, more than 60 miles from the Mexican border.
“All of a sudden, I see these white vehicles with green stripes, and guys running out of the building and waving. So, I waved back at them and I kept going. And next thing I know, I’m hearing sirens and I’m seeing four Border Patrol vehicles tearing down the freeway behind me.”
In case you’re now picturing a born-to-be-wild Bandido hellbent on running from the law, some background: Blomquist is 54 years old. He’s a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. He owns an insurance agency in Farmington. He is a registered Republican.
So, here we have a middle-aged Republican insurance agent being chased by a band of federales for sightseeing too intently. He stops and is surrounded by uniformed men yelling at him to take off his helmet and asking him if he is an American citizen. Blomquist, who happened to be wearing an American flag do-rag under his helmet, picks up the story there.
“I have never encountered in my life a Border Patrol checkpoint inside this country. In all of my 54 years, I have never had anybody question my citizenship or demand my citizenship status. Keep in mind, I’m an American citizen and I’m in the heartland of this country.”
The checkpoints have been there for years and are familiar to people who routinely travel along the border, but Blomquist had never been to southern New Mexico and it was all new, and weird, to him.
So Blomquist doesn’t answer the question. Instead, he says, “What the hell are you people doing up here? Why aren’t you down on the border?” The agents keep asking him whether he’s a citizen. He still doesn’t answer. He says, “I’m confused. Did I cross into Mexico?”
The Border Patrol relies on two Supreme Court decisions for the authority to stop people and temporarily detain them well inside the U.S. with no requirement of suspicion or probable cause.
The Border Patrol defends the checkpoints, which range as far as 100 miles from the border, as legal and necessary. The agency acknowledges travelers have a right to refuse to answer the question, but warns that doing so can result in travel delays.
The Internet holds an array of YouTube videos showing conflicts between travelers and Border Patrol agents at these interior checkpoints all along the country’s southern border.
A movement of people concerned about violations of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search encourages Americans to respond to the citizenship question by asking “Am I free to go?” Those encounters often result in a short detainment and then, yes, they are free to go.
Criticism of the checkpoints has come from sources as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Libertarian magazine Reason.
Blomquist assures me he is not a zealot and that he made no effort to create a scene or be part of any movement. He describes his politics as conservative and slightly libertarian, and he favors strong border security and supports the efforts of the Border Patrol – at the border.
He also respects the Constitution and the freedom to move freely within the country without having to show papers.
“Where I draw the line is hassling American citizens in this country’s heartland,” he tells me.
So Blomquist’s wife, Anita, who has already stopped at the checkpoint, announced her citizenship and been waved on, stands in the sun on the side of I-25 with the Triumph and the Harley while Blomquist is taken to a small room and meets with a Border Patrol supervisor. He hands over his driver’s license and submits to being fingerprinted.
As he waits to find out his fate, Blomquist has a good view of a room filled with Border Patrol agents who are not near the border and are not on patrol. After more than an hour, Blomquist is told he has not committed a crime and is free to go. The supervisor, whom Blomquist describes as a professional and a gentleman, drives him back to Anita and the bikes, and recommends the Blomquists try Sparky’s up the road in Hatch for lunch.
And so ends one man’s accidental encounter with United States immigration and security policies. Alas, Sparky’s is closed when they get to Hatch, but they stop at a gas station and have a quesadilla and a chile relleno burrito that they proclaim delicious.
Blomquist is still slightly dazed and amazed when we talk more than a week later.
“They should do their job and stop the illegal migration across our borders, and stop the violent drug cartels from using our border like their own private narcotics expressway,” he says. “Instead, they sit in these multimillion-dollar checkpoints, pestering the weary vacation traveler or local citizen with stupid rhetorical questions, a hundred miles from the international border. Not acceptable.”