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Life in Sunland Park reflects conflict between border enforcement, rights of border residents

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A helicopter buzzes loudly overhead at the start of “Taste the Nation,” a 2020 food documentary TV series that centered its first episode on El Paso. 

“Hold that thought, I want to hear this really clearly,” host Padma Lakshmi says to an El Paso restaurant owner. They pause, waiting for the Border Patrol chopper to pass. The scene leads into a montage, with Lakshmi abruptly stopping interview after interview, waiting for the sound of slapping helicopter rotor blades to fade into the distance. 

“There’s that constant border sound of a community under surveillance,” one El Paso restaurant owner said to Lakshmi. 

Omnipresent reminders of border enforcement are the norm in communities like El Paso. But just how much that affects border residents’ rights and civil liberties varies: where exactly you live, what you look like and what language you speak can make all the difference. 

A helicopter patrols the area near the border of Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua. Residents of Sunland Park have complained about noise and property damage linked to low-flying helicopters in the area. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Even knowing what your rights are when you live on the border can be a confusing jumble. What is the Border Patrol allowed to do, and what are they not allowed to do? And if a violation of your rights occurs, what are your options? 

For some residents of Sunland Park, N.M. — a small town just outside El Paso city limits — these questions are just as persistent as the Border Patrol agents in their backyards. 

A peaceful community and a hub for border crossers

Walking through Sunland Park on a Sunday afternoon, the scene is tranquil. Fluffy dogs bark behind pink metal fences, and the scent of backyard grills wafts into the street. It’s dusty and sedate in this community that abuts Anapra, a poor colonia on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez. 

But Sunland Park is also a fulcrum of undocumented cross-border activity, and the number of people apprehended crossing the border here has been growing exponentially. 

“Over the last few years, activity levels in (the Sunland Park area) have risen so much that as of present day, the Santa Teresa station (is) the second busiest station in the nation,” said Salvador Guerrero Jr., acting patrol agent in charge of the Santa Teresa Border Patrol Station, which includes Sunland Park. 

Throughout the El Paso Border Patrol sector, border encounters of single adults have increased by 221% in the fiscal year 2021 to date, as compared to this time in the fiscal year 2020.

Guerrero, who also is an “invested resident” of Sunland Park, said this level of cross-border migrant activity necessarily means that Border Patrol agents are very visible to locals, emphasizing that a primary aim of agents in the area is to maintain the safety of the community. 

But some Sunland Park residents say they live in fear of the Border Patrol, subject to constant harassment, racial profiling and privacy violations. 

“Around 4 or 5 a.m., they are around here. Almost every day, they are here,” said Dolores Rodriguez, who has lived in Sunland Park for the past nine years. She expressed frustration with how frequently Border Patrol agents are in her yard, and how they walk all over her plants. 

“They are always making a lot of noise, (and) we don’t know what is happening,” she said. 

Agent Guerrero said that the protocol for Border Patrol agents working within Sunland Park is to first knock on the door of residents and notify them if agents will be entering their property, and to only enter private property when in hot pursuit of a specific individual or group. But residents like Rodriguez say this is not happening in practice. In all the times Border Patrol agents have entered her private property, she said, they’ve never spoken to her to let her know what they were doing. 

Dolores Rodriguez explains how Border Patrol agents enter her private property in Sunland Park. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Two blocks away from Rodriguez’s house sits the salmon-colored trailer belonging to Maria Vargas and Pedro Garcia. The couple said they’ve been repeatedly harassed by Border Patrol agents in the area. 

In July 2020, they were pulled over by Border Patrol agents near their house and interrogated about whether they had “bodies” in the car. “Bodies” is a word frequently used by Border Patrol agents to mean undocumented immigrants.

“(The agents) said that we looked suspicious and asked where the bodies were at,” Vargas said. 

They explained to the agents that they lived nearby and were en route to pick up their son. The situation escalated as Border Patrol agents demanded to see documentation of the couple’s legal status, eventually pressing Vargas, a Mexican national, to sign documents for voluntary deportation. She refused, and the agents took her to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility, confiscating her passport and her U.S. citizen children’s Social Security cards. She has not gotten them back yet. 

In recent months, two residents of Sunland Park have also complained about the large Department of Defense helicopters flying support missions for Border Patrol. The residents said the helicopters flew too low over their homes, blowing their patio furniture around in a rotor wash whirlwind and damaging their property, Agent Guerrero said. He said both complaints had been resolved. 

These larger, military-grade helicopters are increasingly being used for surveillance in Sunland Park, and are just as much of a nuisance to some local residents as they were to TV host Lakshmi. 

“Now it’s military helicopters, with a very loud noise. It’s the helicopters, the horses, the trucks passing at high speed, or they pass by shining their lights into our houses,” said Lourdes Limon, listing her frustrations with Border Patrol activity in her neighborhood. 

Limon, a Sunland Park resident, is also a board member of the Border Network for Human Rights. She got involved with the group because of her desire to do something about what she saw as an untenable situation in her neighborhood.

Among the 11 Sunland Park residents that El Paso Matters spoke with for this article, a little more than half said they had experienced some form of problem with Border Patrol in the area. But others said that they hadn’t, and/or that the frequent presence of Border Patrol agents outside their homes and helicopters overhead didn’t bother them. 

The extent to which invasive methods of border enforcement are normalized in places like Sunland Park reflects this community’s role as a testing ground for the rights of borderlanders: when personal protections come into conflict with the prerogative of federal agencies, finding that boundary line can get murky. 

Fourth Amendment protections on the border

Many of the homes in Sunland Park prominently display signs out front. “POLICE, SHERIFF, BORDER PATROL or any other agency Can’t come into your home without a search warrant or without your consent. 4th Amendment U.S. Constitution,” they read. 

Created by the Border Network for Human Rights, these signs are part of an educational campaign encouraging the residents of Sunland Park to stand up for their rights. 

Lourdes Limon, a coordinator for Border Network for Human Rights, has a “know your rights” sign at her Sunland Park home. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“You cannot imagine how powerful it is when people internalize the fact that they have rights. They have been told in their workplace, they have been told in the streets, by the police, by Border Patrol that immigrants, or that border residents in general don’t have rights because we are in an exception area,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights. 

By “exception area,” Garcia is referring to the 100-mile border zone, which includes all coasts and encompasses nearly two thirds of the population of the United States. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects against “unreasonable search and seizure” and is the basis of much of U.S. privacy law. But within the border zone, some Fourth Amendment protections are relaxed for immigration officials. 

Fourth Amendment border exceptions are extremely narrow. They include the right to search people without a warrant at international ports of entry, and for Customs and Border Protection to have checkpoints within 100 miles of the border. Within 25 miles of the border, immigration officers also are permitted to enter private lands (but not dwellings) in order to “prevent the illegal entry of aliens into the United States.

Shaw Drake, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union based in El Paso, said it’s important to remember that the U.S. Constitution trumps all other laws, explaining that when people learn about the 100-mile border zone, they sometimes falsely imagine it means that border residents lose their Fourth Amendment rights. 

“CBP’s own policies are not the be-all, end-all for what instructs their activity. (CBP) policy could be in violation of the Fourth Amendment if you challenge it in court,” Drake said. 

The ACLU’s policy recommendations to the Biden administration include reform of CBP practices connected to the 100-mile border zone, in order to align with Fourth Amendment standards. Specific recommendations include: eliminating all permanent interior checkpoints, changing the “reasonable distance from the border” as defined in the 25 mile rule to extend only 10 miles from the border, and revising guidelines regarding racial profiling by immigration officers.

The question of racial profiling in immigration enforcement

Maria Vargas and Pedro Garcia, the Sunland Park couple who were detained by Border Patrol, were told by agents that they had been pulled over because they were “suspicious-looking.” 

When El Paso Matters asked why the couple thought Border Patrol agents would have perceived them as suspicious, Vargas said, “just based on discrimination. They see that we’re Hispanics.”

Maria Vargas and Pedro Garcia of Sunland Park said they were improperly stopped and questioned by Border Patrol agents. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Racial profiling is defined by the Department of Homeland Security as “the invidious use of race or ethnicity as a criterion in conducting stops, searches, and other law enforcement, investigation, or screening activities.” 

Border Patrol agents are not allowed to use their perception of a person’s race or ethnicity as the basis for detaining someone, but ACLU attorneys say that the lack of oversight and accountability for agents makes it inevitable. 

“It’s very clear that without protections of expanding the reason for the stop, it leads to racial profiling,” said Leon Howard, an attorney with the ACLU New Mexico. Howard worked on a lawsuit against the Sunland Park Police Department in 2019 in which the ACLU alleged a Las Cruces resident and his five-year-old son were subjected to an illegal search by Customs and Border Protection (who were called by the local police department) based on racial profiling. 

The suit was settled in October 2019, but Howard said it can be easier to resolve cases when they are against local and state authorities, rather than federal agencies like Customs and Border Protection.

The impacts of normalized and persistent racial profiling are deep and enduring, Howard said.

“Now you have communities of people who are accustomed to being profiled, and that manifests in ways that are hard to quantify: around racial trauma about constantly being a suspect, just because you live within 100 miles of the border and your skin is a certain color,” Howard said.  

Extensive research on the profound impacts of racial discrimination and associated trauma on Black communities has shown links to poor mental health and physical health outcomes. Research on ethno-racial trauma within Latino communities, particularly in connection to immigration policy, has found a similar heavy toll for affected communities. 

Limon said that, to her, it’s clear that what is happening in Sunland Park amounts to racial profiling. 

“They have always justified themselves, that they are chasing people that are crossing, but since they see us with an appearance – I feel like it’s more a kind of discrimination, racism, against our community. Because this is a Hispanic community, for them we are all criminals,” she said. 

A “black hole” for accountability

If a resident of Sunland Park does experience racial profiling or other violations of their civil rights by an immigration officer, what are their options for recourse?

In the case of a Sunland Park resident like Rodriguez, who complained of Border Patrol’s constant presence in her backyard, asserting her rights can be difficult. Although the policy is for agents to only enter private property when they are in hot pursuit, some locals doubt that agents are following this but don’t know how to prove it. 

“It’s the excuse that they give, that they are in pursuit of someone. Sometimes these things are not believable because they spend hours doing it and they come in once, twice, up to five times in the same property, the same house, checking the same thing. And that’s at all hours of the day,” Limon said. 

The border wall abruptly ends as the terrain begins to rise toward Mount Cristo Rey in Sunland Park. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

ACLU attorney Howard said that all an agent would have to do in that scenario is give a “silly, little articulable reason” to justify being in someone’s yard and it would be “impossible to dispute.”

“Anytime we’re talking about federal law enforcement, you’re always gonna have an uphill battle in terms of holding federal law enforcement accountable, and then when you do something like lax a constitutional protection just because people happen to live on the border, (the case of Sunland Park) is something that really demonstrates why we need to revisit that,” Howard said. 

But Border Patrol Agent Guerrero said he wished more members of the Sunland Park community would come to him if they have complaints, or file them through the official complaint form on CBP’s website. He said they receive very few complaints, and so how are they to know that there’s a problem.

Residential neighborhoods lie in Sunland Park between McNutt Road and the border wall. Residents in in this area say they are subjected to unannounced intrusions on their property by Border Patrol agents. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Among the multiple choice options for types of complaints on the CBP website, there is no option that would fit someone experiencing harassment from a Border Patrol agent on their property or within their community. 

“I welcome any feedback or concerns, but all I ask is that they notify us if this kind of event occurs, because obviously it’s kind of hard to address this when it’s a general statement,” Guerrero said.

He asked that his direct number be included in this article, so that community members could bring issues directly to him. His phone number is (575) 874-6808.

ACLU attorney Drake said it is not reasonable to expect Sunland Park residents to come to the Border Patrol with complaints, given the systemic lack of accountability within the agency that he referred to as a “black hole.” 

“When you think about a community like Sunland Park, where residents live under such constant and overwhelming presence of Border Patrol, filing a complaint that is less than likely to result in any real accountability or deterrence can easily be viewed as opening oneself up to potential retaliation, given (that) the reality of daily life includes so much interaction with Border Patrol,” Drake said. 

The ACLU also maintains a Border Community Watchline, through which borderlanders who have experienced Border Patrol abuses can voice their concerns or complaints. 

The Border Network for Human Rights continues to be active within the Sunland Park community as well, and holds community meetings and outreach campaigns about the civil rights of border residents. 

Executive director Garcia said that while pushing for Border Patrol accountability is a key priority, they have decided to focus their efforts on community education. 

“For us, what is most important is the education of the community, because if they are organized, if they know about their rights, it’s going to be much easier to make these agents understand that people have rights,” he said.

Nicole Lopez and Corrie Boudreaux contributed to this story.

Cover photo: Lourdes Limon shows a picture she took of a Border Patrol agent coming onto her property in Sunland Park. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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