America’s Maginot Line

For months, Senate Bill 744 – which would reform immigration and make citizenship possible for some of the 11 million individuals living illegally in the U.S. – has been – has been stuck in the House. Generally, Republicans think it is too soft. Democrats have pushed and compromised. But the bill is bad. Not because granting amnesty is bad, but because the border issue is already intruding into the lives of average Americans as well as migrant workers. The last thing we need is more money and more high-tech toys spent in the name of paranoia over "security."

This bill increases all sorts of things of which we already have too many. Back in 1992, there were less than 5,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents. As of 2013, there were 21,000. S.B. 744 increases the number of Border Patrol agents to 38,000, mandates building enough fencing to cover 700 miles, and includes a strategy to make the border secure at last. All this at the low, low cost of 46 billion dollars. And all for "security" and for a projected 90 percent success rate in catching immigrants who mostly just wish to work and better their lives and the lives of their families.

Like all government agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will never decide on its own that it’s funded enough. It will keep keeping on in order to feed and justify itself and keep growing at a "reasonable" rate. But when will the border be sufficiently militarized? When there are 50 drones instead of the current 10 which occasionally crash? Small government advocates – or anyone skittish about open borders – should consider the inevitably of mission creep in all government endeavors – particularly the militaristic type. And pro immigrant-activists must seriously consider how much amnesty is worth, and whether they’re willing to trade it for a border that even more closely resembles a Maginot Line. The question of what to do with the areas between the U.S. and its neighbors affects both lawless migrants and legal U.S. citizens.

There’s a long line of legal precedent that says the borders don’t count in terms of Fourth Amendment protections. Though the drug war and the war on terror have cut many privacy protections off at the knees, they were always more ephemeral at the border. There a search simply has to be "reasonable." And though the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) get awfully intimate in airports, mild groping still pales in comparison to how close some Border Patrol agents can get to your private parts while searching for illicit items. Back in 1985, United States vs. Montoya de Hernandez confirmed the Border Patrols’ right to detain you until you defecate if they have a reasonable suspicion that you might be carrying drugs and you refuse an X-ray. More recently, a New Mexico resident who crossed the border near Ciudad Juarez was taken to the hospital and subjected to a cavity search and a CAT scan after she was suspected of drug smuggling.

This kind of violation has spread to police who operate only near the border. David Eckert, a New Mexico man, received a $1.6 million dollar payout because he was subjected to multiple cavity searches, enemas, and colonoscopies in a vain search for the drugs he was not carrying. The reason for suspicion? He looked tense after Deming, New Mexico police pulled him over when he rolled through a stop sign.

Domestic police may not be quite allowed to search American colons without being subject to lawsuits, but you need not be on the actual border to be judged suspicious. Internal immigration checkpoints remind all American citizens that the cause of fighting undocumented workers is so noble that intruding upon everyone’s life is the least we can do. Since 1976, the Supreme Court has upheld these checkpoints (which now extend 100 miles within the border) as Constitutional. Technically speaking, that means according to the American Civil Liberties Union that nearly 200 million Americans live within the bounds of this Fourth Amendment-lite zone. (There’s a reason libertarian-types have taken to uploading their confrontations with nosey agents to YouTube, though some of their noncompliance has been criticized as unhelpful by skeptics. You are not required to answer questions at these internal checkpoints unless you are being detained for a specific reason, but these videos demonstrate that agents are not interested in clarifying the voluntary aspect of the stops.)

But whatever U.S. citizens suffer on the border, odds are immigrants of all stripes will get it worse. A March 4 Wall Street Journal article noted that Border Patrol agents have killed 22 people since 2010. Several were Americans. Most were unarmed. Currently, agents are also allowed to respond to rock throwing with deadly force if they threatened with death or serious injury. A recently leaked memo painted a disturbing of an agency that even the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) believes needs some major changes in use of force. And of course, immigrants can spend years in limbo – not yet deported, but indefinitely kept at more than 250 detainment centers across the country. In 2011, a total of 430,000 immigrants were held at these centers. And there is a quota that keeps an average of 33,000 detained at any time. Indefinite detainment, even for lawbreakers, is a bad habit that America needs to break completely.

Fundamentally, conservatives who balk at sympathy for illegal immigrants should consider the ease in which Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and other Republican presidents chipped away at the Fourth Amendment by unleashing the war on drugs, and then militarizing it. That war may finally be moving towards an end, thanks to marijuana legalization efforts in Washington and Colorado. But hundreds of thousands of lives were ruined by the drug war before people began to notice. Lessons from that lunatic exercise can be applied to all other grand government adventures.

Immigration activists should remain hesitant about how militarized a border they are willing to tolerate in exchange for amnesty and citizenship. And anti war and anti-American empire advocates shouldn’t be entirely distracted by the US’s intrusive behavior abroad lest they miss what is still happening on our doorsteps – and increasing – in the name of a war on drugs and illegal immigration.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.