US nationals 'under siege'; citizen dies at Border Patrol checkpoint

Civil rights advocates say Border Patrol, part of the largest law-enforcement unit in US, is fostering a police state

The San Diego ACLU chapter reported it has seen no substantial evidence to verify that Steven Keith, 58, possessed marijuana or any other drug at time of arrest.
Eric Gay/AP Images

Civil liberties advocates told Al Jazeera Sunday that U.S. citizens — like their undocumented counterparts — are under siege in what they said is becoming a police state around the border, after the death of a male U.S. citizen in Border Patrol custody at a checkpoint 20 miles from the border with Mexico.

Steven Keith, 58, died on Dec. 24 in unclear circumstances at a checkpoint facility near the Southern California section of Interstate 8.

During his detention, Keith became "incoherent and unresponsive," authorities said in a report, and paramedics were unable to save him.

Keith's family told local media he had no existing medical conditions that would have explained his sudden death. 

"The cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner's office," Paul Carr, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman, said in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera. "I don't have a timeline for the results of the full investigation. As per our statement, neutral third parties are conducting that investigation. I can't comment on what other people may or may not have said." 

According to Carr, Border Patrol officers stopped Keith "for illegal possession and intent to distribute approximately three pounds of marijuana."

A local branch of human-rights advocacy organization the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), currently monitoring the situation, has not found any substantial evidence that Keith was actually in possession of marijuana.

"The problem is that obviously, there is a real lack of transparency and accountability within" the Border Patrol, the San Diego ACLU's border litigation attorney Mitra Ebadolahi said.

Ebadolahi told Al Jazeera that since 2005, 42 people have died while in Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection custody — according to an investigation by the Arizona Republic — "none of which have led to a transparent investigation by the government." Of those who died, 13 were American nationals like Keith.

Christian Ramirez, human rights director of civil liberties group Alliance San Diego told Al Jazeera that because people aren't allowed to use cell phones or take flash photography at many border crossing checkpoints, it's difficult to document alleged abuses.

"The ability of the border patrol to impede citizens from documenting events in border checks with a camera or cell phone is illegal," said Ramirez.

Ebadolahi said that unlike the families of most of the people who have been killed in confrontations with the U.S. Border Patrol, Keith's sister Janet Keith "asked what everyone should ask ... 'Why was he put under arrest? What was the legal justification for that arrest?'"

"The Border Patrol has extraordinary power," Ramirez said. "They are able to put up checkpoints and suspend parts of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution (barring agents from entering private property without a warrant). Mr. Keith was on the U.S. side of the border and detained at a checkpoint." 

The San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office is investigating the circumstances surrounding Keith's death. But Janet Keith told a San Diego ABC affiliate that the examiner's office said it could not tell her the cause of her brother's death for 90 days.

The Medical Examiner's Office was not available for comment at time of publication, but their website indicates that autopsy results are filed "usually sooner" than 90 days.

Although dozens of non-Americans and nonwhites have been killed in stand-offs with border police, Keith's death seems to have provoked a slightly larger outcry in national media for checks on the Border Patrol's relatively uncurbed power.

"Mr. Keith is not the first U.S. national, nor is he the first white dude to die at the hands of the Border Patrol," Ramirez said. "What's unfortunate is that when undocumented migrants continued to die at the border, folks paid no attention. When U.S. citizens of Latin American decent were killed at the border no one paid attention. White folks have been killed too."

Ebadolahi also expressed the need for U.S. citizens to understand what she believes to be the Border Patrol's unchecked power.

"I get routine calls and emails from people who have been harassed or abused at these checkpoints, many of whom are citizens ... There are people who have to go through checkpoints every day for work," she said. "They drive the same car and look the same every time. You'd think returning they'd face less harassment from these agents."

"I think it's hard to convey the emotional experience of checkpoints, but I would say try to imagine a police state environment where people are under siege. And you have to justify your movements when you are going to the supermarket or going home ... You can imagine how it gets when you add routine racial or religious profiling." 

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