“Are You An American Citizen?”: Defying The Border Patrol In Viral Videos

Privacy activists near the Mexican border are refusing to answer the Border Patrol’s new version of “show us your papers,” and putting the results of the encounter on YouTube to show others how to defend their rights.

“Are you an American citizen?” It’s a question you’ll hear uttered from the mouths of Border Patrol officers, who have taken to stopping drivers at checkpoints along the road throughout border states like Arizona. While most people simply say, “Yes” and move on with their lives, others refuse to answer, thereby exercising their right to remain silent and documenting their non-compliance with the Border Patrol’s hunt for undocumented immigrants in a series of YouTube Videos that are going viral.


With his camera phone trained on the federal agent, one activist replies “That’s my business” when asked about his citizenship. The moment, taken from a YouTube clip that’s aggregated some of the most outraged reactions from Border Patrol agents, has now been viewed more than 600,000 times since it was posted a few weeks ago. Other activists tell agents that they refuse to answer the question, some ask if they accidentally crossed the border, while others repeatedly ask the federal agents, “Am I being detained?”

These checkpoints are considered constitutional, but technically, you can’t be detained without suspicion, and the Border Patrol officers are required to let people go, even if they choose not to answer the question. But that doesn’t mean the agents won’t get exceedingly pissed off by drivers’ non-compliance and make absurd demands–like one agent’s ask to search someone’s trunk because his car was “dirty.”

Immigration blog Fronteras recently spoke with Terry Bressi, an Arizonan who blogs about checkpoints and whose YouTube clips have been viewed nearly 2 million times. “It really is a smack across the face of any liberty loving American,” Bressi told the blog, adding “My primary purpose in having the video cameras running while I’m going through a check point is not so I can have cool video to make for YouTube. It’s to protect myself legally.'”

But these anti-authoritarian videos are cool–partially because they expose how offensive this policy really is, partially because they show how citizen-media actually can be used to protect our basic rights, and partially because they show how concerns about privacy are a reason unto themselves to care about the way immigration policy is being executed in this country (regardless of what you think about the DREAM Act or guest workers).

You almost feel bad for the Border Patrol officers, whose jobs are asking them to intrude into the privacy of many law-abiding citizens each day and don’t seem to understand why any American would resist. As one agent tells Bressi, “All you have to do is say you’re a U.S. citizen and be on your way. Instead, you’re making a big deal about it.”

But perhaps this is an issue we all should be making a “big deal” about.


[IMAGE: Spirit of America via Shutterstock]

About the author

Zak Stone is a Los Angeles-based writer and a contributing editor of Playboy Digital. His writing has appeared in,, Los Angeles, The Utne Reader, GOOD, and elsewhere.