Habla usted Inglés?

People were freaking out recently when they learned the U.S. border patrol set up a roadblock on Interstate-95 in Maine to check the citizenship of drivers and their passengers.

One of those expressing bafflement bordering on outrage was Senator Angus King of Maine, on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday: “Do we stop American citizens in the middle of a highway and ask for their papers?”

Yes, senator. Been going on for a very long time. Legal within 100 miles of the border.

I’ve run into one of those checkpoints in Arizona – I’ll tell you about it later – where it’s commonplace and seems acceptable to use any means to snare people who don’t habla Inglés.

But the practice inside the northern border was alien to many who reasonably assumed it was an extension of the Provocateur in Chief’s anti-immigrant hysteria.

And hundreds took to the Twitter barricades to protest.

“This is outrageous,” began one of the more cogent tweets. “Essentially this out of control agency is harassing US citizens with a demand of ‘Papers please!’”

The checkpoint in Maine was up for about eleven hours last week in the southbound lanes of I-95 near the town of Lincoln, about 90 miles from the Canadian border.


“We need to know what … country you’re a citizen of,” a border patrol agent told a reporter for the Bangor Daily News who was questioned.

I’ve had my share of hassles at the U.S.-Canada border. But in my forty-plus years of living in Canada and crossing over – from coast to coast – I’ve never encountered the border patrol, much less been stopped at a checkpoint.

Yet, all the times I’ve visited my daughter Kate in southern Arizona since she moved to Tucson in 2002, I’ve found border patrol vehicles as ubiquitous as cop cars in downtown Toronto.

The only time we ventured to Mexico, I ran into the border patrol going down and coming back.

We took the long way south, pausing in the tiny hamlet of Arivaca before entering Ruby Road, 35 miles of dirt and rock through the Coronado National Forest.

Ruby Road

The road rose and fell and twisted around tall craggy mountains. Driving at about 15 mph, I nearly collided with a speeding border patrol vehicle coming at me on a hairpin turn.

When we finally arrived in Nogales, Arizona, we left my rental car in a parking lot and walked two blocks, through unattended turnstiles, into Nogales, Mexico.

Nogales - Turnstiles

No federales in sight. The only Mexican to note my entrance was a teenager hawking pharmaceuticals. “You need Viagra, mister?”

We did some shopping, haggling in the local languages of commerce – English and U.S. dollars.

Nogales - Me

After dinner, we walked out of Mexico, stopping momentarily at a desk where a U.S. Customs’ agent was chatting with a friend.  “U.S.A.?” she asked, barely looking up.

We nodded – and walked into the United States.

Heading back to Tucson on I-19 after dark, about 20 miles from the border, we ran into a roadblock – the northbound freeway closed off, vehicles forced onto an exit ramp.

San Diego CBP Patrols California -Mexico Border

At the top of the ramp were border patrol agents with guns and dogs. They’d planted a U.S. flag, an eerie Iwo Jima tableau in the Arizona desert.

The agent took one look at me, a middle-aged white guy in a baseball cap, and waved me through with a shout: “Colorado, go!”

I went.

It took me a while to figure out what he meant, recall that my car had Colorado plates.

There’s more on my visit to Nogales – “I give you two blankets and a bottle of tequila for your daughter” – and many other adventures in my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.


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