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toward EQUALITY : EXPLORING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE : On the Border : Physical Appearance Seems to Play a Role Despite INS Denials

February 13, 1989|H.G. REZA | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — I had gone to an Irish pub in Clairemont with a friend to listen to the occasionally mournful, sometimes raunchy tunes and tip a few beers. But, after a few minutes, the conversation among a group of five young immigrants standing next to our table proved more interesting than the music.

The men with thick Irish accents were all soccer players in the United States illegally on expired visas. Two were talking about driving to Disneyland that weekend when another asked if they were afraid of being stopped at the San Onofre Border Patrol checkpoint.

"Not really," said one of them. "We look American. They only stop people who look foreign." They all laughed at the irony of his comment.

For many Chicanos who were born and raised in the Southwest, there is some truth in the young man's statement.

Officially, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol say no ethnic group is singled out when agents enforce immigration laws. Everyone, regardless of physical appearance, may be stopped by Border Patrol agents at any time, any place, and asked, "Citizenship, please?"

Agents I know, including friends who grew up to be Border Patrol agents, insist that physical appearance plays only a minor role when deciding to ask a person about his or her citizenship. There are other telltale signs, they say. A person's demeanor and mannerisms can lead to inquiries, they say. Most agents say they also go on instinct.

This sounds fine, but it is hardly the practice. How often do Border Patrol agents pull over a car full of Anglo faces on a border highway? How often do they wave through a car without questioning the occupants, then stop the car behind it that is full of brown American faces?

Being from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I grew up with the Border Patrol. While picking cotton as a youth, I remember Border Patrol agents walking into the fields, asking about our citizenship.

My father, who also was born in the United States, was a combat veteran of World War II and worked for the federal government all of his adult life. He was even a detention officer with the Border Patrol for a while.

But there were occasions when none of that mattered--even while he operated a U.S. government vehicle. And, as I learned a few days before I left for Vietnam, an Army identification card was not enough proof for demanding agents.

Two weeks before my departure, my father and I drove from my hometown of San Benito to Houston to see my first baseball game at the Astrodome. We were stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint.

My father's federal identification card and my military identification were not enough. Eventually, my father's patient, but stern, objections prevailed.

Later, my father recounted two incidents in which Border Patrol agents stopped him and demanded proof of citizenship while he was driving a government truck on federal property along the Rio Grande River. Anglos driving in the same area were not stopped.

In the summer of 1971, when my oldest daughter was 9 months old, we drove from California to Texas to visit my family. My wife was born and raised in California and does not "look foreign."

Southeast of El Paso, we were stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint. The car ahead of us, carrying white faces from Iowa, was waved through. But the agent looked inside our car and put up his right hand.

"Why didn't you question them?" I demanded. "What is it about us that makes you think we might not be U.S. citizens?"

For a moment, the startled agent, a Chicano, was at a loss. Then, in his best authoritative voice, he said he had the right to stop and question me at his pleasure. He never answered my question. Instead, he looked at the baby and asked if we could prove she was ours and a U. S. citizen.

That was almost 17 years ago, but it appears that little has changed since then.

Two months ago, a friend and his family had a similar experience at the Temecula checkpoint. Every member of my friend's family has unmistakably Hispanic features. They were returning to their Riverside home after visiting relatives in Chula Vista when they had the misfortune of raising the suspicions of a Border Patrol agent.

The car ahead of them, carrying two white women and a white man, was waved through. But my friend's car was directed to the side where another agent began to question the family.

Why had they raised the agents' suspicions, asked my friend, a high school science teacher. Was it because they looked too Mexican?

The ruffled agent asked if my friend was trying to be a "wise ass."

Once again, the agent failed to answer the question.

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