U.S. Highway 1 starts at Key West Florida and runs north for 2,370 miles where it ends up at the Canadian border. Like all immigration politics, the Border Patrol is often tasked with making the point of excluding brown people from America. In 1982, instead of setting up a task force to intercept undocumented immigrants and contraband at the Canadian border, the Border Patrol was tasked with blocking the only highway for many in the Florida Keys, an American patch of land that borders no other country. The message was clear, send in the Border Patrol to keep brown people out of America, in that case Cubans and other refugees.

For the people living in the Keys, U.S. 1 is the only major highway heading out towards the mainland. When the highway is blocked, it inconveniences the residents and hurts the economy. In 1982, the Border Patrol set up a checkpoint and searched every vehicle entering and leaving the Florida Keys. It crippled the economy by disrupting tourism.

In response to the Border Patrol, on April 23, 1982, then Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow, redubbed himself prime minister of the newly formed Conch Republic, succeeding from the United States, because “Key West was a foreign nation to Washington.” The succession was symbolic, but it made the point that the Border Patrol had divided America into two sections, those who must be approved by the Border Patrol and those who are welcome in America without having to prove their citizenship.

90 miles from Cuba

Unknown to most, the Border Patrol has almost unlimited authority to inspect and question anyone within 100 miles of any border, including the oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. This area is known as the 100-mile Border Zone. Because of the 100-mile Border Zone, the U.S. Border Patrol can setup immigration checkpoints, like Sierra Blanca, and temporarily suspend the Fourth Amendment as it questions anyone traversing the 100-mile Border Zone.

Florida lies entirely within the 100-mile Border Zone, making Floridians second-class citizens to border enforcement operations even though Florida does not border a foreign country.

When the Florida Keys’ economy faltered because of the Border Patrol activities, the city’s government filed a federal lawsuit, but the court refused to remove the Border Patrol checkpoint. Proclaiming independence from the Unites States because the residents of the Keys felt “alienated as Americans,” they “attacked” Diligence, a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter, with water balloons and Conch fritters.

The Diligence responded with water canons ending the “attack” quickly.

Wardlow, and his renegades quickly surrendered arguing that they were making the point that they were being marginalized as Americans.

Although the Conch Republic never was independent, the Conch Republic flag proudly flies in the Florida Keys to this day and the 1982 events have become a tourism attraction. But the roadblocks were quickly removed by the Ronald Reagan administration, restoring the right of free movement to the Americans living in the Keys.

But the 100-mile Border Zone exists to this day and the Border Patrol continues to make ample use of it for border enforcement, thereby creating two versions of free Americans, those who live beyond the 100-mile Border Zone with their Fourth Amendment rights intact and those subject to proving their right to live in America.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...