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On March 23, U.S. Border Patrol officers stopped Gilmer Barrios at a checkpoint on I-15 north between Fallbrook and Temecula.
Barrios, who had a pending immigration case to gain legal status in the U.S., was on his way home to Temecula from San Diego County when he passed an immigration checkpoint residents say has been largely dormant for years, but has become active again during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Border agents quickly deported Barrios to Tijuana. His case garnered national attention for displaying border agents’ broad emergency powers during the pandemic. Barrios had an open case in U.S. immigration court, no prior deportation order and is a Guatemalan citizen – so if he was going to be deported, it shouldn’t have been to Tijuana. After 21 days in Tijuana, with help of the Guatemalan consul general in Los Angeles, he was brought back to the United States.
Barrios’ case is one of several known arrests at these checkpoints in northeastern San Diego and southern Riverside county, said Jennaya Dunlap, who coordinates deportation defense efforts for the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice and worked on his case.
Dunlap, along with residents and advocates in Fallbrook, De Luz, Pala and other parts of northeastern San Diego County say they’ve noticed an increase in the presence of Border Patrol since the coronavirus stay-at-home orders went into effect in March. Not only has the I-15 checkpoint re-activated, but another on SR-76 has also been reported active since March. Dunlap and others also say they’ve seen more roving patrols in northeastern San Diego County.
Border Patrol has expansive authority to stop and search people within the 100-mile border zone, which includes the entire county. At checkpoints, agents can stop drivers, question a vehicle’s occupants about their citizenship or place of birth and request proof of immigration status. Border Patrol agents can also station themselves along roadways to conduct “roving patrols,” where they lookout for people committing crimes or violating immigration law.
“San Diego Sector Border Patrol agents working at checkpoints are operating in a routine enforcement capacity,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeff Stephenson in an email. “To be clear, there is no departure from standard enforcement operations. The ability to conduct checkpoint operations depends on various factors including traffic conditions, manpower and weather. When these factors collectively permit, checkpoint operations may be conducted.”
Border Patrol declined to answer questions about whether it has ramped up activity at checkpoints in North County, and data on these stops is notoriously difficult to come by. The Department of Homeland Security doesn’t publish data on how many people agents stop and question in the border zone, only how many people they detain. A 2017 Government Accountability Office report found that at the time, checkpoints make up about 2 percent of all unauthorized immigrant apprehensions and nearly half of all drug seizures, but also noted long-standing data quality issues that made it difficult to measure checkpoints’ contributions to border enforcement.
Dunlap’s organization has documented four arrests since March 23, including Barrios. Of the four, two were in San Diego and two were in Riverside. That’s up slightly from the one arrest per month her group typically documents. In the last quarter of 2019, they only had one case. Since March, her organization has also been getting reports two to three times a week of Border Patrol presence. Before the pandemic, they would get such reports once a week or a couple of times a month, she said. Because the area is rural and isolated, Dunlap thinks her group’s observations probably understate the increase.
“The factor that really leads me to believe there is an increase is the I-15 checkpoint,” Dunlap said. “That checkpoint was not being used more than one or two times a week in the late night or early morning hours, and currently residents report it being used 24-7.”
Dunlap thinks Border Patrol may have re-opened the checkpoint and others because there is less traffic in general, so there will be fewer complaints of delays for non-immigrants.
Alianza Comunitaria, a North County advocacy organization that has for years verified Border Patrol checkpoints and communicated them to immigrants in the region, has also noticed the increase, said Ricardo Favela, the group’s coordinator. Residents alert Alianza Comunitaria of checkpoints and the organization sends out volunteers to verify the tips.
“The first week after the pandemic stay-at-home orders were called and schools were closed, that following Monday, the checkpoint on the freeway was active on a daily basis, which is unusual,” Favela said.
He said the I-15 checkpoint is particularly concerning during a pandemic because, for Fallbrook residents, the closest hospital is in Temecula – about 20 minutes away. The next closest is 40 minutes away in Escondido.
“To access [the Temecula ER], everyone has to go through that checkpoint while it’s on,” said Lilian Serrano, chair of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium and an organizer with Alianza Comunitaria. “Whether you’re documented or not, you have to go through this additional screening now if you want to seek health care.”
Mitra Ebadolahi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said she’s been concerned about interior enforcement during the pandemic. The ACLU argues all interior immigration enforcement should cease during the pandemic.
“In this time of an unprecedented public health crisis, it is more important than ever that all interior checkpoints be shut down,” Ebadolahi said. “No one’s movement should be impeded by a Border Patrol checkpoint, when access to emergency care and resources can mean life or death.”
Stephenson said that continuing Border Patrol’s enforcement, including through checkpoints, is vital in not only preventing illegal border crossings, but intercepting illegal drugs, illicit currency, weapons, prohibited agriculture items and counterfeit materials – including counterfeit COVID-19 test kits.
“[Border Patrol] immigration checkpoints provide an extra layer of response and deterrence to the USBP strategy on illegal immigration, serving the overall national security mission,” Stephenson said.
For residents of the region – many of whom work in agriculture – immigration enforcement has added an additional layer of stress and challenges.
“It’s very concerning that some of these temporary checkpoints are in the more rural areas,” Serrano said. “During the stay-at-home order, the ones we see using these roads are farmworkers. We have to ask them and their families to risk catching the virus to ensure our food distribution isn’t stopped, yet we also allow immigration enforcement to happen on their way to work.”
Margarita and Miguel, a couple who live and work in agriculture in De Luz, said when they get notice of checkpoints through Alianza Comunitaria or Facebook, they won’t leave the ranch where they live and work to avoid the risk. Voice of San Diego agreed not to identify them by last name because of their immigration status.
“You leave and you don’t know if you’ll return,” Miguel said.
The couple has three grandchildren – ages 4, 5 and 7 – with them on the ranch while schools are closed. There is more room for the children to run around and play, but because there is no internet, they drive to Fallbrook or Temecula so the kids can do their schoolwork.
On the days they hear of checkpoints, they’re too scared to bring the children into town, so distance learning just doesn’t happen those days.
Margarita told me that on a recent Monday, they drove by a couple who had been stopped by Border Patrol. The man was being arrested and the woman tried to wave them down for help. They couldn’t take the risk that they would be arrested, too, so they kept driving.
Monica Ruiz, senior director of Migrant Education at the San Diego County Office of Education, said she’s also about an increase in Border Patrol presence in those areas.
“There is a fear of them coming out of their homes,” Ruiz said.
She said she worries about food scarcity for families afraid to leave their homes. With increased immigration enforcement, parents may be scared to go to the store or do food pick-ups organized by schools.
“There are all these layers of stress on these families — on top of a pandemic, there’s Border Patrol and then food scarcity,” Ruiz said.
Araceli, a resident and community leader in Pala, said she’s been getting calls and notifications from residents and those who work in Pala about the checkpoints on SR-76. About a week and a half ago, she said she passed by a checkpoint herself, but was driving in the other direction so she didn’t have to go through it. Voice of San Diego agreed to withhold Araceli’s last name because of her immigration status.
“These types of checkpoints shouldn’t exist here,” Araceli said. “If they are wandering around here, it’s going to impact the agriculture industry because people can’t go to work. Or if they go, they’ll stay on the ranches for days, away from their family, to avoid the checkpoints.”
If someone living or working near Pala needs to go to a grocery store or get other services, they have to go to Fallbrook or Escondido, Araceli said. To do that, they must travel through the areas where the checkpoints have been active.
“For fear, you just can’t leave,” she said.
Dunlap said she opposed checkpoints and roving patrols even before the pandemic, because she views them as discriminatory: People are stopped because of their skin color, their Spanish music or the fact that they are driving a pick-up with tools in the back. And many of those picked up by immigration officials in this way, she said, have no criminal record or even any prior contact with immigration enforcement.
In 2015, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties sued Customs and Border Patrol for records detailing the agency’s “roving patrol” operations throughout Southern California. Documents show that agents conducting roving patrols between January 2011 and July 2014 stopped and detained people for sometimes ambiguous or murky reasons, like drivers speeding or slowing abruptly, not looking at agents who pulled up alongside the car, sitting rigidly upright in seats, acting nervously in the presence of Border Patrol agents or simply driving toward Los Angeles. Another more recent set of records received by the ACLU contained Border Patrol training materials that described what agents should contemplate when pulling someone over, including “whether the passengers appeared dirty.”
Racial profiling in these stops has been a longstanding concern. In the 1970s, the Supreme Court ruled that agents could use race to make these stops, as long as it’s not the only factor. But in 2000, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected “any reliance on Hispanic appearance or ethnicity” in making roving patrol stops.
In immigration court, a person can contest the legality of a stop. But there is no guarantee of a government-appointed attorney in immigration court, the way there is in criminal court, so many stops are never questioned. Changes to federal law in 2019 have also given Border Patrol the ability to deport people more quickly within the 100-mile border zone and new emergency authority granted during the coronavirus pandemic allow agents to promptly turn back people at the border, meaning many people don’t even have a chance in court anymore.
“Then when you add in COVID, it makes it so much worse,” Dunlap said. “They’re generating fear in the whole community, so people are not reaching out for the help and aid that they need right now.”