Ithaca residents Omar Figueredo and Nancy Morales have been released on bond after they were arrested in an international airport March 26 in Brownsville, Texas, after refusing to answer questions from border patrol officers regarding their citizenship status.
Figueredo, a Cornell University graduate student, was charged with “failure to identify oneself,” “obstruction of passageway” and “resisting arrest.” Morales, who finished her master’s at Cornell last year, was charged with “interference of public duties,” according to a press release. Figueredo said he and Morales are both U.S citizens and have U.S passports.
Figueredo and Morales were at the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport on the morning of March 26 to catch a flight back to Ithaca after visiting family in the city of Brownsville. Morales said border patrol officers questioned them as they were approaching the TSA security screening area.
“We were stopped by two border patrol officers in the airport,” she said. “We were asked right away, what is our U.S citizenship status?”
Figueredo said they had refused to answer the question. He said they had continued refusing to answer the question, and the officer had continued refusing to allow them to move on until the TSA screening area closed and their 5 a.m. flight left. Figueredo said they then had to book another flight for 10:51 a.m CDT.
He said they consulted with friends and decided to livestream their experience with the officers when they were approaching security screenings for the second time.
“This experience was very much like the first one, even though there were two different border patrol agents the second time around,” Figueredo said. “It was the same kind of stalemate where we refused to answer the question, and they refused to allow us to move forward. That lasted around over 20 minutes, at which point, out of nowhere, a group of about four or five police officers that weren’t in the airport before arrived at the airport lobby and immediately proceeded to arrest me without any kind of verbal warning at all.”
Figueredo said Morales had then begun recording the arrest using her phone and broadcasted it live online while asking officials “What is the crime? What is the crime?” Morales was also later arrested.
Jose Trevino, public information officer at the Brownsville Police Department, said a police officer stationed at the airport had reported the incident to the BPD.
Trevino said Figueredo had obstructed the other passengers’ path to the TSA screening.
“The gentleman refused to move and allow the other passengers to go through, so they had to change the way the public was coming into the other section of the airport,” he said.
Figueredo is currently a graduate student in the department of romance studies at Cornell University, and Morales finished her graduate studies at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs in December 2012.
Morales said she chose not to answer the question on her U.S citizenship because she was not obligated by law.
Dan Kesselbrenner, executive director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, said a person questioned at a TSA screening is not obliged to answer questions about U.S. citizenship.
“At a TSA screening, they are allowed to check for your identity but … you don’t have to answer when they ask about U.S citizenship,” he said. “If they do ask about U.S. citizenship and they are not sure about identity, their remedy is not to let you board the plane, but they shouldn’t arrest you without having some probable cause.”
Rebecca Engel, policy counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said people cannot be detained for not answering questions, unless there is probable cause.
“You don’t have to have individualized suspicion like you would in any other circumstances at a checkpoint, just to ask a question like ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Where are you going?’” Engel said. “But you certainly don’t have to answer those questions, and they are only allowed to then detain you and keep you there or arrest you if they actually have probable cause.”
Figueredo said his decision not to answer the question was based on the fact that he was not obligated by law and also on his experiences as an undocumented immigrant.
“This wasn’t a civil disobedience act,” he said. “This was an act of civil resistance. We weren’t committing a crime. We were just standing by our rights in order to resist the kind of fear and intimidation and harassment that have, for a long time, been treated as normal in these zones. For me particularly, it was an important act, because I was born in Mexico … I grew up very aware of the culture of fear and intimidation that operates here along the borderland.”
Paula Ioanide, assistant professor at the Ithaca College Center for the Study of Culture Race and Ethnicity, was one of the friends whom Figueredo contacted before livestreaming his second attempt at the TSA screening.
She said Morales and Figueredo wanted to portray a trend of unfair criminalization of people of color.
“The point of their action, even though it turned into something much bigger than they anticipated, is to highlight the ways in which Latino and other people of color are regularly and coercively criminalized by either the border patrol or by the police,” she said.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story quoted Rebbeca Engel saying a person can be detained for not answering questions. However, Engel later clarified that a person cannot be detained for not answering questions.