How the Border Patrol Threatens Civil Liberties Far from the Border

AP Photo/Elliot Spagat

Thanks to a Justice Department mandate from 1953, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection can now detain and search people within 100 air miles from the actual border. With over 40,000 agents, it’s now the largest federal law enforcement agency. Every year, its agents interact with 27 million people at both permanent and temporary checkpoints.

For the Texas Observer, Melissa del Bosque writes about the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s expansion, its overreach, and current attempts to reign it in. Bosque details the way the agency routinely detains American citizens without having to explain why, searches our cars with no warrants, and operates with little oversight. Yet its reach keeps expanding. If you drive within 100 miles of the border on a road that leads to an official border crossing, you better watch out, because if the patrol barks at you the wrong way, you could be detained for a while. And for what?

During CBP’s rapid expansion, the agency ramped up its use of interior checkpoints, subjecting ever more Americans to warrantless searches, seizures and detentions near their schools, in their neighborhoods and on public roads. CBP’s own data suggests that its interior checkpoints do little to catch what it calls “unauthorized entrants” and instead ensnare U.S. citizens on minor drug charges. (Forty percent of its seizures were 1 ounce or less of marijuana taken from citizens.) From 2013 to 2016, interior checkpoints accounted for only 2 percent of CBP apprehensions of undocumented immigrants. In May, a circuit court judge in New Hampshire threw out charges against 16 people who were arrested for possessing small quantities of drugs at a checkpoint manned by local police and Border Patrol agents, about 90 miles south of the Canadian border. “While the stated purpose of the checkpoints in this matter was screening for immigration violations,” the judge wrote, “the primary purpose of the action was detection and seizure of drugs,” which he ruled unconstitutional.

The Trump administration has been aggressively promoting further cooperation between immigration agencies and police departments. Border Patrol agents often accompany officers during routine traffic stops and serve as backup or sometimes as interpreters, but their involvement in domestic policing has had lethal consequences. In 2011, a man in Washington state called 911 because his son, 30-year-old Alex Martinez, who had a history of mental illness, was smashing the windows of their home. Border Patrol accompanied local sheriff’s deputies to the residence, likely because the call was made in Spanish. When they arrived, Martinez stepped out of his house holding something in his hand. Law enforcement say it was a hammer; the family alleges it was a flashlight. A local deputy and a Border Patrol agent, who said they felt threatened, shot Martinez 13 times. Since 2010, watchdog groups have counted 77 CBP-related fatalities—at least one-fifth of them U.S. citizens.

CBP operates with less oversight than your local police department despite having one of the largest federal budgets in Washington. The agency doesn’t reveal the names of agents or details of its internal proceedings in fatality or misconduct investigations. Until four years ago, CBP even kept its use-of-force policies secret; they were made public only after a congressional inquiry into a wrongful death resulted in an independent review. CBP hasn’t widely adopted dashboard or body cameras, although it began a six-month pilot project in May. In 2015, the Homeland Security Advisory Council, a panel of law enforcement experts formed by DHS, warned that CBP had no effective process to root out corruption and that its internal affairs office was woefully understaffed. “The true levels of corruption within CBP are not known,” the council warned. “Pockets of corruption could fester within CBP, potentially for years.”

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