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Is New York the Next "Papers Please" State?

Udi Ofer,
Former Director, Justice Division,
ACLU National Political and Advocacy Department
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September 1, 2010

Arizonans are not the only ones who should fear living in a “show me your papers” society.

As reported in Monday’s New York Times, here in the great state of New York, armed Border Patrol agents routinely board Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses to question passengers about their citizenship and detain those who are not carrying proper proof of their lawful status.

Nina Bernstein reported that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers board trains in western New York and ask passengers “Are you a U.S. citizen?” and “What country are you from?” And in case you were wondering, no, these trains do not cross the New York-Canadian border. They are used for domestic travel.

Take, for example, Ruth Fernandez, a 60-year-old U.S. citizen born in Ecuador. She was travelling on Amtrak from Ohio to New York City. On past trips she was photographed by Border Patrol agents, so this time she carried ID, and showed it to Border Patrol agents when asked about her citizenship.

Ruth was not arrested, but others have been. According to an analysis of government data, CBP arrested 2,788 bus and train passengers from October 2005 through September 2010. It’s unknown how many of these individuals were U.S. citizens who just happened not to carry identification with them and could not prove their lawful status.

Even more astonishing, while CBP asserts that these detentions are necessary to secure the border and prevent smugglers and human traffickers, it appears that many of these arrests are happening far from the border, and not while people are trying to sneak into this country. In fact, according to the New York Times, “three-quarters of those arrested (by CBP) since 2006 had been in the country more than a year.”

Why is this happening?

The federal government has given itself jurisdiction to enforce our border laws, which have looser Fourth Amendment standards, anywhere within 100 miles of the international border. Well, guess what: nearly 2/3 of the entire U.S. population (197.4 million people) live within 100 miles of the U.S. land and coastal borders. So according to Customs and Border Protection, anyone in these areas can be approached by armed agents and asked for their immigration papers for doing nothing more than walking down the street or riding a bus. That’s why advocates have dubbed this region the “Constitution-Free Zone.”

No one minding their own business should be subject to internal document checks for walking down the street or riding the bus near the border. Not only is it a violation of our privacy rights, but it’s a recipe for racial profiling. According to the New York Times, a doctoral student born in Taiwan was arrested in 2009 on the train after being singled out for questioning of his “Asian appearance.” The New York Civil Liberties Union, which has investigated this issue for several years, particularly in the Syracuse area, has also heard from other advocates about Latino passengers being singled out for “looking or sounding foreign.”

If you are approached by CBP agents on a train or bus, remember that you have the right to remain silent. If you are not a U.S. citizen and have been issued immigration documents that are still valid, you do have a legal obligation to carry those documents at all times. But you still have the right not to speak.

President Obama, it’s time to meet your campaign promises and restore the rule of law in the United States. Stand with us to say no to privacy violations, no to racial profiling, and no to counterproductive immigration enforcement policies that make no one safer, but instead alienate immigrant communities that make our nation great.

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