This op-ed was originally published in the El Paso Times.
New Mexico’s legalization of cannabis for recreational adult use has reminded all borderland residents of a fact our Latinx, Indigenous and Black neighbors have known for decades: Border Patrol checkpoints are cruel, pointless and serve to harass residents going about their lives.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol’s parent agency, doubled down on their misuse of checkpoints this week with their statement reiterating the agency’s commitment to enforcing federal drug laws, ignoring the will of New Mexicans who supported the legalization of cannabis in the state. Borderland residents hoping to legally purchase or produce cannabis and drive through a checkpoint risk, at best, deeply traumatizing and humiliating searches and the confiscation of their cannabis.
At worst, they risk arrest, even prosecution, for possession of a product that is perfectly legal under state law.
But none of this is new – at least not to our residents of color or medical cannabis users.
For decades, some 40 permanent Border Patrol checkpoints along our border have unnecessarily divided border communities, trapping undocumented people and blocking many residents from accessing vital services, like health care.
The Supreme Court in 1976 ruled U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte that checkpoints should be limited to asking, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” Any further questioning or search requires reasonable suspicion from the Border Patrol agents operating the checkpoints.
But an ACLU lawsuit uncovered Border Patrol training documents that show agents are trained to sidestep Constitutional protections.
Is your car dirty from driving through our dusty desert? Border Patrol says that’s suspicious. Are you having trouble hearing the Border Patrol agent and trying to listen closely? The agency says that’s suspicious. Are you minding your own business and trying to get through the checkpoint as quickly as possible? Their training documents say that’s definitely suspicious.
This has been and will continue to be a challenge to medical cannabis users, particularly those who need to travel throughout our state – a right protected by law – to see doctors and specialists. A medical cannabis user in Las Cruces risks being detained and losing their critical medicine just for trying to drive to Albuquerque to see a specialist.
That has devastating physical and financial consequences and has absolutely zero public benefits. In fact, it’s a waste of time and resources for everyone involved.
Even before President Joe Biden entered office, the ACLU urged him to eliminate all permanent interior Border Patrol checkpoints or at a minimum direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), under which CBP operates, to keep Border Patrol from setting up checkpoints more than 10 air miles from the border and ensure agents strictly limit questioning and stops at checkpoints to the narrow immigration purpose permitted by the Supreme Court in the Martinez-Fuerte case.
The Biden administration has thus far failed to take any steps to address the long-standing concerns surrounding Border Patrol’s operation of internal checkpoints or rampant violations of Constitutional protections.
The agency’s decision to continue enforcing federal marijuana prohibitions over the will of the people of New Mexico is cruel and creates a burden not shared by many other states, like Colorado and Oklahoma, that have similarly legalized cannabis.
For far too long, Border Patrol agents at checkpoints have harassed borderland residents traveling through our state for work, to visit friends and family, or simply to explore the many communities and natural wonders of our region.
It’s high time the Biden administration put an end to these cruel barriers and shuts down Border Patrol interior checkpoints.