This past summer, Craig Johnson joined dozens of other activists in a San Diego-area park to protest the expansion of a fence along the US-Mexico border.
An associate professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, Johnson says he took his two children, aged 8 and 10, to Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach in June. Scores of border patrol agents were on the scene, Johnson said, and some were recording license plate numbers from protesters' cars parked a more than a mile away from the border.
It seems that Johnson's participation in the anti-fence demonstration may have landed him on a government watch list that has inhibited his ability to travel freely between the US and Mexico. A professor of Music, Johnson said he traveled to Tijuana about a week after the protest; upon returning to the US, Johnson says he was handcuffed and arrested by customs agents after a listing associated with his name pegged him as armed and dangerous.
"I was thoroughly and aggressively searched. ... Every inch and crack and crevice of my body was poked and prodded," Johnson said. "I was in complete bewilderment of what was going on; I felt violated and frankly was embarrassed."
Prior to that visit, Johnson said he had traveled regularly between the US and Mexico for a variety of reasons without facing any harassment. After the June visit, Johnson said he did not cross the border again until October, when he decided to go simply to see whether he could re-enter the country easily. He was subjected to the same harassment.
"It took me four months to return to Mexico," he said. "Not because I'm afraid of traveling outside my own country, but rather because I'm afraid of returning home."
Johnson spoke Wednesday at a gathering organized by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is highlighting the extent to which the Department of Homeland Security is expanding the authority it claims at US border crossings to infringe upon Americans rights.
The ACLU says a "Constitution-free zone" exists within 100 miles of the US border, where DHS claims the authority to stop, search and detain anyone for any reason. Nearly two-thirds of the US population lives within 100 miles of the border, according to the ACLU, and the border zone encompasses scores of major metropolitan areas and even entire states.
Customs and Border Patrol, a component of DHS, was authorized by Congress to operate within a "reasonable" distance of the border, and that distance has been set at 100 miles in regulations governing CBP, the ACLU says. The authorization has been in place for decades, but complaints about abuses of the extended border zone began to ramp up as CBP was expanded and folded into DHS after 9/11.
Also of concern, according to the group, is the border patrol's use of massive databases and watch lists to screen travelers. Much remains unknown about how those lists are compiled and it is exceedingly difficult for a person to be removed from the list once he or she is added to it.
ACLU affiliates around the country have fielded dozens of calls from people claiming they were harassed by border agents, and the group believes there are untold numbers of other victims who are afraid to come forward.
No lawsuits have yet been filed against DHS or CBP, but the ACLU says its attorneys in border states are preparing cases.
"Part of what we're trying to do is to draw our own line in the sand here and say this has to stop," Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program, said Wednesday. "We cannot determine two-thirds of America as a Constitution free zone."
DHS 33 "interior checkpoints" that are monitored by the border patrol, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report. The ACLU assumes more checkpoints have been established since then, and group affiliates have complained about checkpoints as far as 93 miles from the border.
ACLU lobbyists are working with members of Congress to rein in DHS's border authority. Caroline Fredrickson, the group's chief legislative counsel, praised a measure introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold and others to ban suspicionless laptop searches at the border.
"We need to restore the Constitution to the Constitution-free zone," Fredrickson said.
Wednesday's event also featured a video testimonial from Vince Peppard, another San Diegoan who faced trouble from border agents. Peppard said he was stopped at least 20 miles inside the border on a return trip from Mexico. He refused to open his trunk "on a matter of principle" and was detained for about 30 minutes.
"I didn't feel like I was in the United States," he says. "I felt like I was in some kind of police state."