March 27, 2013

Cornell Graduate Students Arrested Near U.S.-Mexico Border

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After refusing to answer a border patrol agent’s question about their citizenship status at a Texas airport near the border between the U.S. and Mexico, Omar Figueredo grad and Nancy Morales  grad were arrested.

Figuerdo was arrested for failing to identify himself, resisting arrest and obstructing a passageway, while Morales was arrested for interference with public duties, a class B misdemeanor.

The two were released from jail in Brownsville on bond at approximately 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Figueredo said that they refused to answer the agent’s question not because they did not have documentation, but because they wanted to put up an act of civil resistance.

“Nancy and I are U.S. citizens, so it’s not for that reason that we were refusing to identify ourselves … We refused to answer because we think that it is an unauthorized form of intimidation and harassment that has become naturalized and normalized in the border region,” Figueredo said. “We know that we are not obligated by any law to answer those questions as long as we’re in the U.S. territory.”

Standards for enforcement activities state that a person has the legal right to not answer border patrol agents’ questions about their citizenship status and walk away without fear of arrest if there is no reasonable suspicion that the person is undocumented or poses a threat, according to the US Department of Justice’s website.

However, according to Peter Williamson, an immigration lawyer based in Houston, Texas, when a person is in an area that is close to the border — which includes airports near the border — “all the rules change.”

“When you’re at the functional equivalent of a border, you’ve got to convince [border patrol agents] that you’re a citizen, and that means they can ask who you are and what your citizenship is,” Williamson said. “You’ve got the burden of identifying yourself and saying what your citizenship is. If you don’t, they can take you into custody.”

According to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center released in April 2012, about 58 percent of an estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico. Critics of undocumented immigrants say they divert resources from U.S. citizens.

What turned out to be a very long day for the two students started early Tuesday morning when, following a two week visit to Texas, Morales and Figueredo were waiting to board their 6:15 a.m. flight to Houston to return to Ithaca.

“We were just returning back to Ithaca so we can go back to our work,” Figueredo said.

After having checked their bags, the two students were in line to proceed through  Transportation Security Administration’s screening area — an area that screens carry-on items and asks for photo identification — when they were approached by two border patrol agents who asked them about their citizenship status, Figueredo said.

When Figueredo and Morales refused to answer the question, “[border patrol agents] wouldn’t let [them] keep walking and go through the TSA screening area.” As a result, the students missed their flight.

After missing their initial flight, Figueredo and Morales booked a second flight that left at 11:51 a.m., according to Figueredo. Again, the border patrol agents asked about their citizenship status and the students refused to answer.

Police then arrested Figueredo, not telling him what they were arresting him for, according to Figueredo.

“Two or more officers just handcuffed me and dragged me out of the airport,” Figueredo said.

Morales, who was videotaping the arrest, followed officers as they took Figueredo to a police vehicle. She repeatedly asked, “What is the crime?” according to the video footage.

The two were taken to jail, where they were detained for approximately seven hours and eventually released on bond.

Figueredo explained his motivation in refusing to answer about his citizenship status in an email to his friends on Tuesday.

“I’m doing this because I grew up for a long time thinking that it was ‘normal’ for this kind of harassment to occur,” Figueredo said in the email. “I don’t think/know that this will change anything in terms of existing authorizations and legalizations, but I’m doing it for my younger self who had to endure this kind of shit for so many years, never knowing that it was possible to resist.”

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Figueredo said that their refusal to answer the border patrol agent’s question “was part of a large trend of people refusing to answer what they say are unwarranted and racially targeted questions at border patrol checkpoints, and then uploading video footage online.” Figueredo recorded the confrontation with his iPhone and broadcasted it for people across the country to see.

Figueredo and Morales will be staying in Brownsville until details about how they will proceed with the case become more clear, according to Figueredo.

Original Author: Jinjoo Lee