Border Patrol Checkpoints

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “checkpoints are a critical enforcement tool for securing the Nation’s border against all threats to our homeland.” The Border Patrol, a division of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, views border checkpoints as one of the three security layers designed to protect the homeland from undocumented workers, illegal drugs, and international terrorists. Along with sophisticated surveillance technology, canines, and ground sensors, Border Patrol agents strategically rely on checkpoints, both permanent and tactical, to provide a final layer of defense against security threats emanating from Canada, Mexico, or Central America. Public debate surrounding Border Patrol checkpoints includes issues of surveillance and privacy as well as issues of efficiency and utility.

While patrolling the borderline and roving patrols constitute two crucial layers of defense, checkpoints are considered a third vital security component. As mandated by changes in the statutes of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and subsequently as acted on by the U.S. Department of Justice, border checkpoints can be established as much as 100 miles into the interior. About 200 million Americans live within the defined areas in which checkpoints can be established, and some have argued that these areas are negatively affected by such checkpoints.

Permanent Checkpoints

The United States’ borders with Mexico and Canada and its coastal borders are divided into 20 sectors by the Border Patrol. In 2014, there were 35 permanent checkpoints along the primary highways, staffed by Border Patrol agents.

Each of these permanent checkpoints is designed to facilitate a brief visual screening by agents, after which vehicular traffic is permitted to pass through to its destination. Based on the initial screening, vehicles judged to be suspicious in nature are directed to a secondary lane for further inspection.

Each checkpoint is directly tied to national databases providing Border Patrol agents specific information about vehicles and/or drivers, including terrorist watch lists. Permanent checkpoint buildings provide facilities for agents and technology facilitating the screening process. Checkpoints also may have sniffer dogs to detect illegal drugs, and agents who operate mobile handheld devices, including the Enforcement Link Mobile Operations technology. Fixed license plate readers are also in use at many border checkpoints.

Permanent checkpoints may also have communication towers, permanent lighting, canine kennels, and, frequently, concrete lane barriers to protect the screening agents. Other assets associated with these checkpoints are agents who patrol the area, surveillance cameras, and ground sensors.

In 2014, agents at the border checkpoints seized $15.2 million in currency, 72 firearms, and 35,756 rounds of ammunition, and they arrested 602 fugitives or violators of export laws.

Tactical Checkpoints

Another kind of Border Patrol checkpoint is a tactical checkpoint, which differs in size, infrastructure, and location from a permanent checkpoint. These checkpoints are most often positioned along secondary highways used by drug smugglers and human traffickers. The purpose of tactical checkpoints is to inspect vehicles whose drivers seek to avoid the permanent checkpoints. Tactical checkpoints are set up for short periods of time and consist of a few Border Patrol vehicles, canine cages, and warning signs and traffic cones alerting drivers to slow down for an upcoming inspection.

Legal Issues

Several issues have plagued the Border Patrol checkpoints and fueled extensive public debate. The most contentious public issue regarding Border Patrol checkpoints is whether or not the agents who inspect vehicles are superseding the legal rights guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. One interpretation of the laws in place suggests that the Fourth Amendment protects all Americans from random and arbitrary stops and searches, including vehicle inspections at Border Patrol checkpoints.

In addition, the increased use of national databases along with sophisticated surveillance technologies at the Border Patrol checkpoints has created legal concerns focused on privacy issues.

In response, the Department of Justice has successfully argued that some basic constitutional rights afforded by the Constitution do not apply at checkpoints, including the requirement of suspicion of wrongdoing to justify a search of a vehicle and/or driver. The Department of Justice further argues that the knowledge gained from national databases and from specific surveillance technologies must be weighed against the real threats posed by international terrorists.

Regardless of the legal aspects that have arisen, it appears that a minority of agents assigned to Border Patrol checkpoints have on occasion superseded the rights of some Americans as a result of lack of professional training or other reasons. Training at the Border Patrol Academy in New Mexico has been reduced from 6 months to approximately 54 days. One result of this reduction in academy training is that agents who graduated after 2006 are less likely to be familiar with the complexities of their legal powers at checkpoints, especially regarding whether or not American citizens are obligated to answer certain kinds of questions when stopped.

Infringement of both Fourth Amendment and personal privacy rights have been vigorously pursued through the court system and in the media. The debate between these two opposing positions shows no signs of subsiding.

Efficiency and Utility

Two U.S. Government Accountability Office reports, the first in 2005, the second in 2009, have questioned the efficiency and utility of both permanent and tactical checkpoints as presently constituted. Both reports document, based on data provided by the Border Patrol, the relatively low seizure rates of contraband and low number of arrests of illegal aliens and criminals in proportion to the number of Border Patrol agents assigned to the checkpoints. These reports seriously question whether or not checkpoints are necessary and/or cost-effective. A common complaint by border residents, for example, is that checkpoints do little other than cause perpetrators to find long-standing ways to circumvent checkpoints. These methods include dropping off illegal aliens before the checkpoint is reached, then picking them up on the other side of the checkpoint.

Another report by outside consultants suggests that a serious problem frequently overlooked is the collection of inaccurate data at the checkpoints. The consultants documented the insertion of inaccurate or misleading data by Border Patrol agents as a common occurrence at these checkpoints, and they questioned the reliability of the data produced.

Impact on Nearby Communities

A 2014 study of the impact of a checkpoint on I-19 in Arizona by Jeffrey Jenkins and colleagues suggests that real estate price data “appear[s] to provide marginally statically significant evidence of one type of economic harm associated with the checkpoint” (p. 32). With regard to declining tourism, the report states that “business representatives to the south of the checkpoint . . . were unequivocal in their views that there has been, in fact, a decline in tourism in the region as a result of this checkpoint” (p. 32). The authors conclude that “the nature of these impacts seems fairly clear and the quantitative analysis [they] were able to perform provides support for some of the concerns expressed by members of the community” (p. 32).

Extensive research on Border Patrol checkpoints is required to learn more about their efficiency and utility in support of national security, challenges to legal rights, and negative impacts on the safety, economics, and social well-being of nearby residents and businesses.

Robert Lee Maril

See also Smart Borders ; U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Further Readings

American Civil Liberties Union. Border Patrol Authority Within 100 Miles of the U.S Border (n.d.).

American Civil Liberties Union. The Constitution in the 100-Mile Border Zone (n.d.). (Accessed October 2017).

Jenkins, Jeffrey, et al. Checking on Checkpoints: An Assessment of U.S. Border Patrol Checkpoint Operations, Performance, and Impacts. Tucson, AZ: National Center for Border Security and Immigration, September 2014. (Accessed October 2017).

Maril, Robert Lee. The Fence: National Security, Public Safety, and Illegal Immigration ALong the U.S.-Mexico Border. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2011.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Border Patrol Checkpoints (CBP Publication No. 0000-0710). (Accessed October 2017).

U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Performance and Accountability Report, Fiscal Year 2014. (Accessed October 2017).

U.S. Government Accountability Office. Border Patrol: Available Data on Interior Checkpoints Suggest Differences in Sector Performance (GAO-05-435) (July 22, 2005). (Accessed October 2017).

U.S. Government Accountability Office. Border Patrol: Checkpoints Contribute to Border Patrol’s Mission, but More Consistent Data Collection and Performance Measurement Could Improve Effectiveness (GAO-09-824) (August 31, 2009). (Accessed October 2017).

U.S. Government Accountability Office. Border Patrol: Key Elements of New Strategic Plan not yet in Place to Inform Border Security Status and Resource Needs (GAO-13-25) (December 10, 2012). (Accessed October 2017).