I was listening to NPR in the car with the wife this week when I heard a report about immigration in Phoenix, AZ. It was a fascinating account, for it described how U.S. Border Patrol agents were routinely patrolling the Greyhound Bus station there. Though it is almost 200 miles from the Mexican border, it is apparently a place where many immigrants will find transportation to other parts of the country.
So these agents simply walk through the bus terminal, asking travelers for some kind of proof of citizenship. If a person can’t provide any, then they slap the cuffs on them and lock them up. If they are found to have no criminal background, they are sent across the border. Simple enough.
What struck me was the way savvy is important in such situations. I mean, I’m not a lawyer or a lawmaker or border agent or anything, but it just struck me strange that people were submitting themselves to such scrutiny. Never mind the fact that Scandinavian folks are probably not being questioned at the bus terminal, or that this might be some kind of questionable search and seizure. My thought was about how a basic understanding of the system helps or hurts a person.
If most people were questioned by a law enforcement officer as we walked through a public place, we would kindly defer, or pretend that we hadn’t heard the question, or in some other way, respectfully avoid the issue. If cornered, we would at least ask the question, “Why do you ask?”. We know that we can be indirect and evasive while not being exactly dishonest. When the police officer asks us, “Do you know why I stopped you today?,” we know that our answer can be respectful and honest and deferential without getting us in to any more trouble than we already have. We know how to play the game.
But what was depicted in the report seemed to surprise the both the reporter and the agents themselves. As the tape rolled, an agent gently hailed a man over to him and asked for his paperwork. The response he received was honest and direct: the man didn’t have any paperwork, because he had recently crossed the border and was ‘illegal’. Cue the sound of the handcuffs, and the post-interview with an incredulous agent, who basically said, “well, we’ll just keep askin’ ‘em, and as long as they give themselves up, we’ll keep sendin’ ‘em back!”
Never mind that the man in the handcuffs might have a better birthright to the land on which he’s ‘trespassing’ (as I tell my students, ‘hey, this is our country; we stole it fair and square!’), or that he may well be crossing to shore up the economy on which we all depend, or that his family might be starving on the other side, or that my great-grandfather came to Charleston, SC before anyone was worried about this place getting too full, or that God seems more than a little concerned about our care of the ‘alien and stranger’ among us. Let’s just grant that he is doing something illegal, and allow that he ought to be deported– punished for his breaking of the law. My point is that most all of us break laws of one kind or another almost every day. We just have an intuitive understanding of our rights, and a good sense of the system, and an awareness of what we can get away with. More power to the already powerful, and so it goes.