Guide to Border Patrol Checkpoints

If you are planning to drive south of Tucson to Nogales, Bisbee, or Rocky Point, you will encounter Border Patrol checkpoints.

The following is a Guide to what’s going on down south:

The priority mission of the Border Patrol is preventing terrorists and terrorists’ weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States.

According to US Customs and Border Protection “traffic checks are conducted on major highways leading away from the border to (1) detect and apprehend illegal aliens attempting to travel further into the interior of the United States after evading detection at the border and (2) to detect illegal narcotics.”

On the CBP website they explain: r

The National Border Patrol’s Strategy directly supports CBP’s 2006-2010 Strategic Plan. This strategy specifically addresses three of CBP’s strategic goals, including:

Preventing Terrorism

Detect and prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons, including weapons of mass effect, from entering the United States.

Strengthening Our Control of the United States Borders

Strengthen national security between the ports of entry to prevent the illegal entry of terrorists, terrorist weapons, contraband, and illegal aliens into the United States.

Protecting America and its Citizens

Contribute to a safer America by prohibiting the introduction of illicit contraband, including illegal drugs, and other harmful materials and organisms, into the United States.

A separate zone has been created along the southern border of the United States .

The problem is the residents amd especially visitors in this separate zone don’t know how to deal with it.

There is tension between the Border Patrol and its mission, with the people living, working and driving through areas being patrolled by the Border Patrol.


The Border Patrol is s a  limited purpose federal law enforcement agency. It is not a police force in the sense of city police and county sheriff’s deputies. Local police have broad authority to enforce all state and local criminal statutes, and have a sworn duty to protect the health, safety, welfare, lives and property of the people.

Thus local police have the duty and responsibility protect people from murder, rape, assault, theft, and enforce laws ranging from felony murder to speeding on the highway.

Local law enforcement people are also (usually) well trained in dealing with the public as public cooperation and trust is absolutely essential for successful law enforcement. This is called “community policing”.

In contrast, we have the Border Patrol whose missions are (1) preventing illegal entry of people, or catching illegal entrants once they have gotten into the United States , (2) stopping drugs being smuggled into the country, and (3) since 9/11 the Border Patrol has also become an arm of the war on terrorists.

The Border Patrol has no jurisdiction to enforce state and local criminal laws, unless separately delegated such authority by local or state police. The opposite is also true…local and state police do not have basic authority to enforce federal immigration laws. That’s one of the basic issues of the SB 1070 fight.

When drug smugglers start shooting at each other, the “crime” involved is not federal. It involves violation of state law. Thus the burden of dealing with this illegal activity falls on the local police or sheriff’s deputies depending where the incident occurs.

Already over-burdened local police now have to deal with increasing criminal activity primarily because the Border Patrol has failed to stop the flow of drug smugglers into the United States. Under Arizona’s new state law requiring local police to enforce immigration law (SB 1070) now we have local cops empowered to do what the Border Patrol is supposed to do. Not surprisingly, many police departments and the Pima and Santa Cruz county Sheriff’s departments object to this.


Illegal Immigration. The Border Patrol’s original mission was to stop illegal entry into the United States , which has mostly involved people crossing into the US to get jobs.

The Border Patrol basically is an enforcement arm of our immigration laws.

The problem of illegal immigration is caused by the dynamic of a lot of poor people in Mexico with no future, and a lot of jobs in the United States.

No matter how much effort the Border Patrol makes to stop illegal entry for jobs, it seems the flow of people willing to risk their lives in the borderlands never ceases.

It would be a safe guess that virtually everyone seeking to cross our border to get a job succeeds eventually, sometimes after many attempts, except those who die in the process of crossing.

How else does one explain a reported 12 million illegal aliens now living in the US ….a number that is simply a guess. Could be 20 million.

For many years the cat and mouse game between the Border Patrol and illegal entrants was of little consequence to residents in the borderlands, because illegal entrants are peaceful people simply looking to work as maids, gardeners, waiters, construction, or whatever. The Border Patrol was not being shot at by drug smugglers.

As the volume of illegal entrants increased in Southern Arizona ‘s rural areas, due to successful efforts of the Border Patrol to stop the flow of illegal entry in border cities, the problem began to get ugly. First there was the massive increase in trash left behind by the illegal entrants. The desert of Santa Cruz County glitters with empty plastic water bottles. Piles of discarded back packs and clothing are common.

Then the fence cutting by illegal entrants peeved the ranchers.

Then the roads the Border Patrol started cutting through the countryside annoyed the environmentalists.

Meanwhile Republican politicians, seeking to hang onto a majority in Congress, tried to make illegal aliens a high priority problem and demanded the US deport the 12 million illegals.

More recently the border became even more dangerous with drug cartel murders in Mexican border cities, and the shooting of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz. The Arizona state legislature responded passing SB 1070 which has triggered a national outcry about Arizona’s new anti-immiogration law.

Should Congress ever pass meaningful immigration reform that allows guest workers to be accepted as human beings in this country, with a sane and not prohibitively impossible ways for them to become “legal” in the US , the flow of workers and their families over the border is expected to cease.

Drugs. The Border Patrol has become  one of the front lines in the war on drugs. Being where they are …in the hinterlands near the border, it is obvious they would encounter dope smugglers and a lot of drugs.

Setting up road blocks on border highways increased the drug seizures credited to the Border Patrol. In the opinion of many local residents  the checkpoints are probably more about interdicting drugs than catching illegal aliens. The illegal aliens walk around the permanent checkpoints.

To measure the true effectiveness of the federal efforts to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the US , newspapers ought to start publishing marijuana and narcotic prices…like they track gasoline and lean hog prices. What does an ounce of marijuana sell for today on the streets of Tucson?  How much has that price increased or decreased over the last week, month, year, two years?  If the war on drugs was really cutting into the supply, then prices ought to be skyrocketing.

Terrorists. The new priority mission of the Border Patrol is stopping terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from crossing our borders.

Since 9/11 everything the federal government does is somehow tied to the threat of terrorists, regardless of how remote the truth may be. And before putting more boots on the ground, the federal government “solves” the terrorist threat by taking more and more civil rights away from Americans.

Why, people ask in the borderlands, would a Saudi terrorist risk his life hiking through the Arizona desert when he can fly into New York on a student visa and take flying lessons to carry out his mission.


The countryside south of Tucson echoes with the staccato report of automatic weapons fire.

We now have three armed groups running around the countryside.

The first group is the Border Patrol itself.

The second group are the militias that have formed out of frustration with the Border Patrol, armed with rifles and hand guns.

The third group are armed escorts for people and drug smugglers, and bandits attacking the people and drug smugglers. These guys are armed with AK 47s.

So far, the efforts of the Border Patrol to stop the trespassing of people and drugs into the US has made it a big enough business for coyotes smuggling people and mules smuggling drugs to justify automatic weapons to protect their loads.

Now we have people shooting at each other…drug and people smugglers versus each other and border bandits.

The remote areas in the borderlands have become a very dangerous place. Warning signs are everywhere on Coronado National Forest lands warning that one my encounter illegal aliens and drug smugglers.

Ironically, the urban areas and towns are safer than most cities in the inerior of the US. All the action is in the boonies.

John Fitzpatrick, Patrol Agent in Charge of the Nogales Border Patrol office freely admitted at meeting in Green Valley in May 2007 that the Border Patrol doesn’t have the manpower to stop illegal aliens and drug smugglers from crossing the border at the border. Their mission is under funded and understaffed. Fitzpatrick noted that New York City has more cops than the BP has for the entire country. There are 2,800 BP agents in the Tucson Sector which covers Arizona from the Yuma Pima County line to the New Mexico state line.

The Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol covers 262 miles of the border, Fitzpatrick estimated it would take 5 agents per one-half mile to man the border 24/7. This translates into 2,620 agents equired to blanket the Tucson Sector portion of the border.

Tucson author Tom Miller, in his book “On the Border” which was published in 1981 noted “the Agency insists that with more personnel-1,800 agents now work the southern frontier-the flow of migrants from Mexico could be reduced considerably.” Millers goes on to add “but even if enough border guards were hired to link arms from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean – 2,551,560 by my calculations – the problem would still not be solved.”

Listening to the Border Patrol explain why they can’t actually prevent illegal entry at the border itself sounds eerily like the explanations why the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went so badly for years. Not enough boots on the ground.

Thus the Border Patrol demands a permanent checkpoint on Interstate 19 twenty miles from the border. Residents between the border and the checkpoint feel like the federal government is moving the border twenty miles inland and abandoning them to armed smugglers. There is precedent for this. The US Army pulled out of Southern Arizona during the Civil War, and the Apaches destroyed Tubac.

Santa Cruz County residents are demanding the Border Patrol concentrate their forces down at the border, and the Border Patrol is waging a public relations campaign to put a permanent checkpoint on I-19 north of Tubac. Tubac leaders note that a permanent checkpoint won’t stop people who know where it is every day, and that the checkpoint out to roam.

The Border Patrol has succeeded in installing a new and improved checkpoint on I-19, which has greatly improved the working environment for their drug-sniffing dogs, according to recent news reports.


The conflict that is brewing in southern Arizona is over the conduct of the Border Patrol.

It acts at times like an occupying army, and treats everyone in the area as potential criminals.

The following is from a site is not officially affiliated with the US government. But it speaks volumes about the attitude of the Border Patrol.

“Federal officers can freely stop vehicles for inspection at these checkpoints without any required level of suspicion or justification. That is the law. Most of these checkpoints have separate areas reserved nearby where a vehicle can then be nearly stripped under what is called “secondary inspection”. The referral of a vehicle to “secondary inspection” needs only to be “selective” and does not require any “reasonable suspicion”.

“It is best if you do not annoy, abuse, alarm, alert, tease, torment, or disturb a Border Patrol Agent at any of these checkpoints.

“Border Patrol Agents cannot and will not take your drivers license away from you. (The federal agent working at a legal Port of Entry can take your driver’s license or almost any other documentation away from you.)

“The Border Patrol Agent will engage you in “consensual conversation”. “Consensual conversation” is not interrogation. Consensual conversation is … conversation.

“Good morning, how are you, that’s a nice gun you have in your pocket”, are all simply one side of a consensual conversation, but in polite society they do require that you make some verbal response.

“While the Agent is having this consensual conversation with you you are — essentially — detained. You and your vehicle cannot leave. It is very important that you do not attempt to leave.

“Leaving the Agent without his permission will almost certainly be met with what is called in the vernacular of the profession a “Dynamic Apprehension”. We civilians might call it ….. a chase and a tackle.

“The problem with a Dynamic Apprehension is that one or more of you will fall to the ground and or bounce off of various hard objects like walls, cars, the sidewalk or rocks and bushes if perpetrated in more suburban areas.

“This fall almost certainly will be with you — the illegal / the uncooperative — on the bottom and with the usually larger more athletically inclined Agent on top. If somehow you wind up on top then things can get very energetic and the mysteries of your life may be found in your autopsy report.”


Anyone driving south of Tucson  will encounter US Border Patrol agents at checkpoints on our highways and freeways.

Middle class white people are very unfamiliar with the rules of being stopped by  folks wearing uniforms and carrying guns. They have great difficulty understanding why they are subject to exercise of police authority on the freeway. Most people believe they have the right to free and unimpeded travel inside the borders of the United States. Surprise ! We do not have this right within 100 airline miles of the actual border.

For the moment, the Border Patrol can stop you and ask you if you are a US citizen and engage in “consensual conversation” meaning they can ask where you are going. Answer politely.

Smiling at the BP agent is useful…even though few of them smile back. Just plan to be late to wherever you are going and don’t get angry about the delay. This is life where lettuce pickers are just as frightening to the government as Al Qaeda.

Some Border Patrol agents assume you are an illegal alien or an armed drug smuggler. Or maybe even one of those Islamic terrorists they are supposed to be stopping. According to Border Patrol sources, some of the agents staffing the checkpoints recently got out of the military after running checkpoints on roads in Iraq oir Afghanistan.

Citizens of lower income neighborhoods generally are more experienced with dealing with police, since they are more likely to be stopped repeatedly. This is not, however called “profiling” by the police, who explain “if 90% of the people in the neighborhood are Hispanic, then 90% of the people we confront are likely to be Hispanic.” This does not, however explain the high probability that an Hispanic person will also be accosted in a 99% White neighborhood. “In that event, the person doesn’t fit,” said one cop.

The more you look like an illegal alien, a drug smuggler or an Islamic terrorist (which is approximately 90% of the population here), the more freaky you can expect a Border Patrol agent to be. Also, there are many “profile” vehicles Arizona that are linked to alien and drug smuggling such as Greyhound buses, white SUVs, 1986 Chevy Astro vans, and any vehicle with tinted windows.

What you do not want to do is trigger what is called a “secondary” meaning the Border Patrol waves you over to the side and searches your vehicle.

Within the 100 mile zone, you also can be pulled over by the Border Patrol, whether or not you violated any traffic laws, so they can ascertain your citizenship status.


It is obvious that an important purpose of Border Patrol checkpoints, especially the one on I-19,  are to intercept drugs.

State and local police can set up temporary road blocks to catch drunk drivers, but permanent road blocks are not permitted in this country…except for the Border Patrol.

The immigration laws of the US allow permanent checkpoints to ascertain whether someone is legally in the country, and checkpoints are allowed within 100 airline miles from the border.

Thus, the Border Patrol could, if they thought they could get away with it, put a permanent checkpoint on Interstate 10 north of Tucson. Should the Border Patrol ever try to establish a checkpoint on Interstate 10 north of Tucson, the outcry of opposition will likely be one hundred fold of what happened down here. The Border Patrol checkpoint between San Diego and Los Angeles had to be closed due to opposition there.

One notes that in every presentation justifying permanent checkpoints, the Border Patrol trots out its statistics on how many tons of marijuana and other drugs they have seized at  their checkpoints. These are all drugs that got through the ports of entry or were smuggled across the actual border.

At the I-19 checkpoint the Border Patrol routinely checks vehicles for drugs with their dogs. Often the “consensual conversation” is simply to stall you until the dog can check your vehicle. Be careful driving into the checkpoint because you really don’t want to hurt the dog.

Most “first-timers” encountering one of these checkpoints bristle at being asked if you are a US citizen and where you are going. They have never been stopped before by police for that reason. The checkpoint north of Tubac is reportedly killing the tourism business in the area. There are many first-hand reports of visitors being upset over having to pass through the checkpoint, vowing never to come back here.

Final bit of advice…Border Patrol agents have no sense of humor. Do not ask them if they cross-train their dogs to sniff out drugs as well as illegal aliens.


About Hugh Holub

Attorney and writer.
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