Living As An Immigrant in Michigan

POST BY Elvira Hernandez ACLU of Michigan, West Michigan Regional Office

Coming from a migrant, farmworker family meant, I spent half the year in Florida and half the year in Michigan.  We were nomads traveling in our wood-paneled station wagon up and down Interstate 75 in the late spring and mid fall every year from the time I was 4 years old until we settled in Michigan in the fall of 1987 when I was 15. 

Growing up in West Michigan I never thought of myself as living “at the border”.  So I was shocked when I recently learned that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has interpreted key laws so that the entire state is considered to be the “border,” or what CBP calls the “100 mile zone.” In that “100 mile” zone, CBP says it can search your vehicle and/or detain you without a warrant.

Unknown to me, and to many of Michigan’s residents and visitors, CBP treats the Great Lakes as an international boundary, meaning that the whole state is within the 100 mile enforcement zone.  Because of having been born at the U.S./Mexico border I always thought of CBP as operating at the border.  After all, CBP’s primary mission is: “to detect and prevent the illegal entry of aliens into the United States.” Yet, I very much doubt that someone in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, or Greenville considers their place of residence or daily activities to be anywhere near an international border.  And if it is CBP’s mission to prevent people from “illegally entering into the United States,” how does CBP do that in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo or Greenville?

I’ve always worked as an advocate in the immigrant community, specializing in farmworker and immigration matters. I’ve done countless “Know Your Rights” presentations. But it wasn’t until I started working at the ACLU of Michigan and helped with a case to find out about CBP’s “100 mile zone” in Michigan that I realized just how little even I actually knew. Not only was I mistaken about where in Michigan CBP may act with near impunity, but I was not alone. Hardly any Michigander is aware of this reality. 

This fall, while my girlfriends and I were on our yearly ‘girl’s weekend’ up north, I noticed a souvenir T-shirt in a Pentwater shop that read, “Michigan: the Only Peninsula without Borders”.  I laughed and told my girlfriends what I had just found out about the 100 mile zone.  Everyone was completely appalled as they had no idea that T-shirt should have said: “Michigan: A Peninsula that is All Border”. 

Ever since the winter of 1988 I have had legal status of one form or another with work authorization, temporary residence, permanent residence and finally U.S. citizenship through naturalization, a process that started over 28 years! Having grown up and lived with different immigration statuses at different times in my life I was always conscious of different types of “immigration” enforcement, especially when visiting family in Texas, California and Arizona. Yet I didn’t think much about “border” enforcement in Sparta, Michigan. I always pictured warrantless detentions happening at the actual border. Here I have been an advocate in the immigrant community and had been unaware of CBP considering the whole state of Michigan to be within the 100 mile enforcement zone. 

Working on the 100-mile zone case at the ACLU, I learned a lot. I learned that nearly 1 in 3 of the people CBP stops and processes in Michigan is a U.S. citizen.  I learned that 40% are either U.S. citizens or foreigners lawfully in the U.S.  I learned that CBP has increased the number of agents in the Detroit sector, which covers all of the state of Michigan from 38 in 2011 to 411 in 2015. 

Learn More about the Border Patrol's 100-Mile Zone Policy and the Constitutional Concerns It Raises

When I think about the border and Michigan, I think about the Ambassador Bridge. When I visit Detroit, I see the signs to the tunnel or bridge to Canada, so I expect that CBP agents will be at and near that port of entry. But I also know that even as a U.S. citizen, I have to be careful. Someone asked me just last weekend, “what’s Canada like?” I responded that I have no idea because I’ve never visited Canada. The person was surprised that, even though I grew up in Michigan I had never gone to Canada. I told him, “They might not let me back in!”  Imagine hearing stories of a carload of school friends coming back from Canada and only the “Mexican” looking one being questioned about his citizenship. I’m not risking that! I carry my U.S. passport in my purse every single day and when asked why, especially by someone that’s white, my response is, “if we were walking together, who do you think CBP would detain and ask for proof of citizenship?”

Looking back, I find it ironic that, having been born in a border city, Reynosa, just 10 miles across the Texas border, I spent my life in Florida and West Michigan – both states that are entirely within the “100 mile” border zone. Here in Michigan, CBP has free run of the state, yet they don’t disclose a lot of the information. Where in the state are all these CBP agents using their self-appointed authority to stop and detain people? Why aren’t we as Michiganders being openly informed of who, what, when and where?  Why are so many U.S. citizens being detained? 

Since the morning of November 9, 2016, my community, my family, and my household have been shaken.  I have tried to reassure my U.S.-born children and reassure myself, repeating that we have nothing to fear.  However, I now know that the largest law enforcement agency which is supposed to protect our borders thinks it has free range throughout ALL of our state.  I hear the cries of the advocates saying that they will stand with the immigrant community, but how can they when none us know what CBP is doing in our state. Now, more than ever, we need to know.

When I think about the border and Michigan, I think about the Ambassador Bridge. When I visit Detroit, I see the signs to the tunnel or bridge to Canada, so I expect that CBP agents will be at and near that port of entry. But I also know that even as a U.S. citizen, I have to be careful.

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