There is growing shock that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) behaved like a paramilitary outfit in Portland, Oregon, nabbing protesters from the streets and whisking them away in unmarked cars. But the fact is that border enforcement agencies are ideally suited for the job.
The Week’s Joel Mathis points out that CBP has “long been ripe for use and abuse by an authoritarian-minded executive” and he is right. Even before President Donald Trump was elected, CPB, along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), already had a veritable blank check to ignore constitutionally protected liberties in the 100-mile interior zone adjacent to the entire border, inside which two-thirds of Americans reside. In this zone, as I have noted previously, border patrol officers have sweeping powers to surveil and search anyone. The Trump administration deployed both CBP and ICE during the June protests in Washington, D.C., to do just that and “support” other federal law enforcement bodies.
However, in Portland, CBP took on a far more active role and brought in its combat-ready Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) and Special Response Team (SRT) to deal with protesters. These units, Newsweek reported, are akin to special operations forces that are supposed to be used only in high-risk missions involving immigration, drugs, and terrorism around the border.
The big advantage of these units was that Trump didn’t have to navigate legal or parliamentary rules to summon them. Indeed, if he wanted to call in the military to quell protesters, he would have had to invoke the Insurrection Act, as President George H.W. Bush did after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. This was guaranteed to generate pushback not just from Congress but the military itself given that its top brass told Trump after the D.C. protests that they were not eager to cooperate with his efforts to suppress American citizens. But summoning border troops, who already have free rein to effectively harass and harry two-thirds of the country’s residents, posed no such problems. “So this is an end-run because he couldn’t use the military,” a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official, troubled by Trump’s tactics, anonymously told Newsweek. (CBP and ICE are both housed within the DHS.)
But that is not their only appeal.
The fact is that for all their brutality, cops, even militarized ones, are under local control and trained to respect minimal rights because, by and large, they deal with American citizens. That’s not the case with border enforcement agencies, whose targets are foreigners and immigrants who enjoy few rights. Moreover, as New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg notes, border agencies’ leadership is fanatically devoted to Trump and is saturated with far-right politics.
All of this made them perfect for Trump’s purposes.
The lesson here, as I have pointed out before, is that a government that enjoys vast powers go after immigrants becomes difficult to restrain in other dimensions. Once norms against government abuse and overreach are eroded toward “outsiders,” it’s only a matter of time before “insiders” become fair game too. That’s the logic currently playing out in Portland. It may soon come to a town near you.