As I've noted elsewhere on this blog, I live in Encinal, a town in what we call Deep South Texas, just about 40 miles north of the Mexican border. I work in Laredo, which is right on the border. Each night I am required to stop at a permanent U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on my way home from work. Dogs sniff at my car, agents knocking on it here and there, giving me officious, dirty glances. I'll be the first to admit that mine is a red car, a Volkswagen, and that I am an Anglo with a longish goatee and little round glasses. They peer in the windows, wielding little flashlights. They leer suspiciously at my broken door panel. Usually, I have been at work for ten or twelve hours when I am greeted by these stalwart defenders of our borders. I suspect they have been sworn to uphold the Constitution, as I had to do before I could conduct the Census of Agriculture by telephone many years ago. But I have no reason to believe that any of the agents who are regularly rotated through the checkpoint on I-35 north of Laredo have any idea what the Constitution even is.
Anyway: last night. I was particularly grouchy, and agent Shook wanted to know where I was born. I do not like answering this question, and do not feel that undocumented migrants and narcotics present an immediate enough threat to my country to warrant the requirement that I stop to answer the question on my way home from work. So I told him I wasn't going to answer.
"Sir," he explained, "You say you're a U.S. Citizen. This is just one of the ways we can find out whether or not that's true."
"But you're not going to check, right?" I asked. "I mean, can't I just make something up? How about I say 'Toolafalls, Mississippi'? Would that do?"
"Well, sir," he said, darkly, "that would be a lie" (it isn't clear how he knew this) "and it would be a crime."
I backed down, and did not claim to be born in a town I only know from Flannery O'Connor's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."
To my surprise, the agent did not conduct a punitive search of my car, as had happened the last time I refused to answer the question about my place of birth (Frederick, Maryland, by the way). Instead he had the dog-handling agent circle the car another two or three times. I stared ahead, nervous, irritated. And then he told me I could go. He told me to "have a good evening."
My resistance (which I acknowledge as the tiniest of symbolic gestures, scary as it is for me personally)--my plan to lie in response to the Border Patrol--is, of course, a political gesture, one that reflects my conviction that theirs is a nightly unconstitutional, unjustified infringement upon my privacy.
However, I chose not to lie to agent Shook, after he told me it would be a crime. Also: it has been clearly explained to me by other Border Patrol agents that the question of origin is really only about confirming the respondent's command of English. Even knowing this, I opted not to lie. Even knowing all of this and believing deeply that the Border Patrol checkpoint is wrong, that it is the wrong solution to the wrong idea of what our problems are, I chose not to lie, not even a little.
Had I lied--knowing such a lie were a crime--I think I'd be prepared to face conviction for that crime, it would have to be part of my consideration in lying. I cannot imagine arguing that, because my lie was politically motivated--even in a context in which the lie means to subvert the authority of a question that is unconcerned with the truth of the response--that my conviction for the crime of lying could be understood as a "criminalization of politics."