Inside the Massive U.S. ‘Border Zone’

Arivaca is a small, unincorporated community in Pima County, Arizona, around 11 miles north of the Mexican border. The closest big city is Tucson, 60 miles northeast. The town itself is barebones—a smattering of old buildings, some dating back to the 1800s. It is surrounded by swathes of yellow grassland.

To get groceries or cash a check at the bank, residents often have to drive north to Green Valley, or even further, to Tucson. And to do that, they have to pass by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoint, where they’re inevitably asked if they’re U.S. citizens.

“It sometimes feels like they’re trying to create a no man’s land,” says Arivaca resident Peter Ragan. “All the people who are living here, and may have lived here for generations, are now part of the problem because they’re in the way.”

While the weight of border patrol’s operations is felt heaviest along the southwest border of the U.S., the “no man’s land” Ragan is talking about actually extends much further into the country. In the “border zone,” different legal standards apply. Agents can enter private property, set up highway checkpoints, have wide discretion to stop, question, and detain individuals they suspect to have committed immigration violations—and can even use race and ethnicity as factors to do so.

That’s striking because the border zone is home to 65.3 percent of the entire U.S. population, and around 75 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population, according to a CityLab analysis based on data from location intelligence company ESRI. This zone, which hugs the entire edge of the United States and runs 100 air miles inside, includes some of the densest cities—New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. It also includes , Border patrol operations led to 97 deaths over the last 15 years—some 160 miles from the border itself.)

But even if that worst case scenario doesn’t materialize, activists and residents near the border see the mere presence of these checkpoints as cruel and inhumane. For undocumented or mixed-status families, they create impossible, Hobson’s choices. Should an undocumented Texan woman exercise her already-restricted right to have an abortion, if there’s a checkpoint on the way? Should undocumented parents take themselves and their kids to get crucial medical treatment if there’s a checkpoint on the route to the hospital? Or, should they stay home and risk the consequences of not getting help?

“These checkpoints? They’re borders themselves—they separate families; they separate communities,”said Jorge Rodriguez, an ACLU organizer in Southern New Mexico.

*It’s worth taking all the numbers provided by CBP with a grain of salt because the GAO also found “inconsistent data collection practices at checkpoints.”