On Saturday, Sept. 20, if Stasyi Barth of Lake Elsinore has her way, border traffic from the Pacific Ocean to Brownsville, Texas, will grind to a halt, blockaded by Americans using their vehicles as barricades.
Barth is rallying folks who are mad as hell about a lot of things, not least of which is the incarceration and trial of Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, the 25-year-old Marine reservist who was arrested in Mexico after he took a wrong turn and crossed the border with three loaded guns in his truck.
Barth, a 41-year-old married mother of three, is a former computer programmer who has been on disability for most of the last decade. She’s been stewing for years about illegal immigration, she told me, but Tahmooressi’s arrest and incarceration “kind of pushed it over the edge for me.” Through Facebook, she hooked up with Rob Chupp, an Indiana man who has been active in one of those rabid militia groups along the border, and together they’ve come up with a plan: “Shut Down All Ports.”
At precisely 8 a.m PDT on the appointed day, Barth will be at the San Ysidro crossing, just south of San Diego, one of the country’s busiest ports of entry. If all goes according to plan, protesters driving south on Interstate 5 will turn off their engines just yards before they get to the Mexican border, blocking traffic entering Mexico. On the northbound side of the freeway, Barth hopes drivers will create a barrier across interstates 5 and 805, the two main roads that lead north from the San Ysidro crossing, blocking traffic entering the U.S.
“You get out of your car and take your keys with you,” she told me Wednesday from her home. “You stand there and wave your American flag and try to get the message to D.C. that they need to close our border.”
She has no idea how many people will show up, but if enough do, the roads into and out of Mexico will become jammed and impassable. Even a small number of cars coming to a halt on a busy freeway – weekend morning or not --could cause an unholy traffic nightmare.
Barth believes the ensuing chaos will force elected officials on both sides of the border “to come up with a permanent and legitimate solution for dealing with the illegal immigration issue, enforce our rule of law and bring our Marine home.”
That sounds crazy, I told her. Dangerous even. Not to mention incredibly annoying and unfair for the hundreds of thousands of law-abiding folks – Mexican and American -- who cross the border every day for work, school, business or pleasure. (Also, the last time someone mucked around with traffic to make a political point, as I recall, things did not go well.)
“That’s why we put out a travel advisory,” Barth explained. “I don’t want to inconvenience people. I want to make a point. People protest all the time and it affects other people’s lives. Airline pilots go on strike, transportation workers go on strike constantly and they don’t get any flak for that.” (Oh sure--just ask the air traffic controllers who went on strike in 1981.)
For their part, officials at the California Highway Patrol and Customs and Border Protection are aware of the impending plan for civil disobedience.
“CBP has contingency plans ready to put into place in the event of any protest or a temporary blockage of traffic at our international border crossings,” CBP spokesman Ralph DeSio told me by email. “For security reasons, we do not discuss specifics regarding such plans. We work in close coordination with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners in order to respond to any situation that may occur at or near our ports of entry.”
Barth said she is not a member of any tea party group and considers herself a political independent, but her sentiment that her country is slipping away from her is a familiar conservative theme, and one that is shared by the sort of people you saw screaming at buses of little Central American kids in Murrieta last July. (Barth was there.)
In Murrieta, Barth said, she encountered pro-immigrant protesters from La Raza who told her that “‘California belongs to Mexico,’ and we better get used to that. Then Jerry Brown comes out and says everyone is welcome here no matter what. That’s feeding into it. He doesn’t realize when they get power, he’s out too.”
Last month, Barth neatly printed “Free Sgt. Tahmooressi” in white paint on the tinted windows of her big Yukon SUV and drove to Solana Beach to attend a press conference with Tahmooressi’s mother, Jill, and his attorney, Fernando Benitez. In a voice shaking with emotion, Barth announced that she knew people “who will stop what they are doing and get him.” Benitez has said repeatedly that such rhetoric is unlikely to help his client, whose case may not be resolved until the end of the year.
Securing the release of Tahmooressi is Barth’s No. 1 goal. That is “nonnegotiable,” she says, even though, as I pointed out, she has no place at the negotiating table since there isn’t one. The man, after all, is on trial in a foreign country on gun charges.
The rest of her mission is a bit of a jumble: She believes that members of drug cartels and gangs cross our border with impunity because U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers are not allowed to “detain and remove” immigrants. (It appears to me that she is arguing that dangerous criminals who try to cross into the United States ought to be returned to Mexico rather than incarcerated here because our jails are crowded.)
She also wants a “clear plan of action” to seal off the U.S. Southern border “by means of a military-grade fence with razor wire,” more Border Patrol agents and national guardsmen. She wants all foreign aid to Mexico to be used “to build up their middle class” and a halt of foreign aid to any countries that support terrorist organizations. She wants an end to “sanctuary cities,” to any government aid (including medical or educational) for immigrants here illegally, and criminal penalties for anyone who hires folks without papers.
Finally--and I kind of like her chutzpah here--she is demanding immunity for “all protesters involved in this protest that have conducted themselves in a peaceful manner.”
Typically, I reminded her, someone engaged in civil disobedience understands that she might be arrested and prosecuted for deliberately flouting the law.
“I hope not,” she said with a sigh. “I have quite a few medical issues so that would not be my ideal situation. Most days I can barely move.” (Among other ailments, she has rheumatoid arthritis.) But, she added brightly, “If that’s what it takes, people long before me have been willing to risk everything to ensure that this country stays free and safe and remains true to the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
Barth, who is married to a Canadian citizen, is quick to say she does not oppose legal immigration. “My best friends are from Mexico, they were just sworn in as U.S. citizens two weeks ago.” (When they say they are Mexican, she impatiently corrects them: “You gotta stop that! You are not Mexican, you are American!”)
“I’m not against anyone coming here,” she adds. “I just want to know who you are and I want you to work. I don’t want your first stop to be the welfare office.”
I don’t need to pick apart every aspect of Barth’s complaints. (Most immigrants cross the border precisely to find work. Adults who are here illegally are not entitled to public benefits. Many Americans find the idea of sealed, razor-wired borders abhorrent-- I am among them--and plenty of people support the idea of sanctuary cities.)
As for respecting the rule of law, it’s hard to find a more hypocritical stance than the one being advanced by Tahmooressi’s more florid supporters, a topic I have addressed in numerous columns. You cannot demand respect for your own country’s laws while demanding that another country disregard its own.
Creating chaos at the border is not going to inspire a broken Congress to pass a sane immigration reform plan. It’s not going to stop people from trying to cross the border to feed their families. And it’s certainly not going to help get Sgt. Tahmooressi home.
But I’m calling dibs on Barth’s first jailhouse interview.
Please follow me--not across the border, but on Twitter: @robinabcarian