Credit: George Danby

I remember, growing up, watching movies set in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in which people were routinely and without warning stopped on the streets by stern-faced agents who demanded, “Your papers.”

I also remember thinking, “Phew, I’m glad I don’t live in a country like that.”

And now, suddenly, I do live in a country like that. Welcome to the People’s Republic of America, where the purveyors of “small government” are, curiously, cheerleaders for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy of stopping drivers on the road and, in effect, demanding to see their papers.

This practice is, in a word, an abomination.

In the United States, we have freedom of movement. This implies freedom from harassment by legal and political authorities so that we can go about our business without being cross-examined by overzealous government agents who see illegal immigrants around every corner and view them as an infestation.

The setting up of roadblocks on Interstate 95 to screen out illegal immigrants is an example of the ends justifying the means. In the hope of finding the (rare) malefactor, people are being stopped wholesale and screened for citizenship status.

I have a huge problem with this. First, without some suspicion, or probable cause, that I have committed a crime, I object to any government authority stopping and questioning me. Second, it is my understanding that, once so questioned, all I need say is, “Yes, I am a citizen,” and I proceed on my way. In other words, even if I were here illegally, all I need do is lie, and I pass through the roadblock. This reduces the activity of the U.S. Border Patrol to little more than theater and creates the impression that the quiescent Canadian-American border is a hotbed of criminal aliens.

But Americans willingly stand for this. The truth is, the citizenry has been made to feel afraid of immigrants, whom the president has labeled “murderers” and “rapists,” so we have been conditioned to approve of any action the government takes to “protect” us, no matter how unconstitutional its stink. Thus, in addition to the roadblocks, Border Patrol agents have been scouring the long-haul bus stations, “interviewing” passengers about their citizenship. I have yet to read or hear about anyone, aside from the ACLU, protesting this treatment.

I referred to unconstitutionality. This, then, is an appropriate juncture to cite the Fourth Amendment (it’s true: the Constitution contains other amendments besides the Second):

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In light of these inspired, and hallowed, words, I would like to make my own declaration. Should I be stopped at a roadblock, or approached at a bus station, and asked about my citizenship, I will not answer. I claim my right to move freely from place to place, in my own vehicle or by other conveyance, without being interrogated by a milk-faced 22-year-old seeking to impress his supervisors or a seasoned henchman looking to play the hero.

In an age of patriotism gone berserk, and aggression masquerading as law enforcement, it is incumbent upon the citizenry to push back. There is a difference between checking a passport at an international border and approaching people on the streets. The problem with “zero tolerance” policies, and the belief that we can have 100 percent security, is that these obsessions make petty tyrants out of low-level officials like Border Patrol agents. It affords them the opportunity to come home at the end of the day and proclaim, “We got us a Guatemalan.”


Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta-Bangor. He is a frequent contributor of essays to The Christian Science Monitor and a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association award for opinion writing.

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