Opinion

Border Patrol is out of control

The agency's outrageous overreach in Portland demonstrates why it should be defunded

Want to defund the police? A good place to start might be the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The latest Trumpist assault on American democracy reached a boiling point over the weekend in Portland, Oregon. Video showed two men in military gear — later revealed to be CBP agents — plucking a demonstrator off the street and putting him in an unmarked car. Another protester told The Washington Post a similar story about being detained by unidentified agents, only to be released later without an arrest report. (The agency says its officers identified themselves during arrests, contradicting witness reports.)

That wasn't the worst of it: Federal agents reportedly shot another demonstrator in the head with a rubber bullet, fracturing his skull.

The result was widespread alarm and anger. "Mr. President, federal agencies should never be used as your own personal army," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) said during a Friday press conference. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) referred to the agents as "unidentified stormtroopers." Oregon's attorney general filed suit against the federal government — including CPB, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Department of Homeland Security — alleging it had violated the rights of protesters. The ACLU filed a similar lawsuit to protect the rights of journalists and legal observers. Even the local U.S. attorney called for an inquiry.

While several federal agencies are involved in the mayhem in Portland, the use of border patrol agents here should arouse the most scrutiny — they aren't enforcing immigration law by cracking down on the city's protesters, after all. But even before the recent demonstrations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection was a rogue agency with a toxic culture. The agency might not serve as President Trump's "personal army," precisely, but it has long been ripe for use and abuse by an authoritarian-minded executive. Trump fits the bill.

Scandals emerge from CBP's toxic soil with regularity — just last week, the Government Accountability Office revealed the agency was misusing its funds, taking money meant to be spent on medical care for migrants in its custody and using it instead to buy dirt bikes and boats. That follows outrageous stories in recent years involving widespread racism among agents, and reports of officials turning a blind eye toward migrant deaths.

Even if the agency were somehow free of corruption, its official duties and authorities would still be disquieting.

In carrying out Trump's immigration policies, for example, CBP held children as young as 2 or 3 "in jail-like border facilities for weeks at a time without contact with family members, or regular access to showers, clean clothes, toothbrushes, or proper beds," according to Human Rights Watch. Just as alarming is the agency's jurisdiction: The "border" where it carries out its enforcement duties extends 100 miles inland from the country's actual borders — an area that encompasses roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population, as well as the entire state of Hawaii.

Within that zone, CBP can act as a law unto itself. The government holds that the protections of the Constitution do not fully apply at the border, and agents conduct themselves accordingly — stopping cars and buses without cause to check the citizenship status of passengers, even when those vehicles haven't been involved in actual border crossings. "In practice, Border Patrol agents routinely ignore or misunderstand the limits of their legal authority in the course of individual stops, resulting in violations of the constitutional rights of innocent people," the ACLU says in a fact sheet on the matter.

The protests sparked by George Floyd's death have broadened CBP's apparent mandate. Agents have been increasingly deployed to do domestic law enforcement — deputized as marshals in Washington, D.C., and ordered to defend monuments and federal property against vandals. That almost seems reasonable. But as The New York Times noted, many of those agents are often trained in dealing with violent drug smugglers, not protesters whose primary crime is scrawling graffiti on a courthouse.

In short, this is not an agency predisposed to act humanely or respect Constitutional niceties. Like Trump himself, CBP seems prone to enforcing law and order while shrugging off the actual rule of law.

"CBP is operating as a shadowy paramilitary force in Portland and other places throughout the country, and this is absolutely horrific and unacceptable," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told The Daily Beast.

Portland may just be the beginning. The Trump administration plans to expand the enforcement techniques it is using in Oregon to additional U.S. cities. It is up to Congress and the courts to put a stop to this. How? Congress can narrow CBP's mandate, so that it only deals with border issues. It can redraw the border zone down to just 25 miles. Legislators can also reduce the agency's size, which has ballooned since 9/11. They can require the CBP to demilitarize, encouraging it to use caseworkers to track and keep touch with asylum-seeking migrants. They can make an agency that is less empowered and amenable to abuse.

Trump and his cronies would surely look for other ways to crack down on protesters. He will abuse any power he has, and claim powers the Constitution doesn't actually grant him. Congress, however, doesn't need to make it easy for him. It is time to defund U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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