By day, helicopters fly overhead. Dusty patrol vehicles take up neighborhood parking lots. By night, klieg lights illuminate the new, 18-foot steel fence that snakes along the sand dunes. This strip of land thousands of miles long feels like occupied territory. And in a way, it is. I refer, of course, to the border between Mexico and the United States.
After the government incarcerated children in a nearby camp, critics called for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. But the better target for elimination, or at least downsizing, is the Customs and Border Protection agency, ICE’s big, paramilitary brother. It’s bloated and riddled with corruption.
I grew up on the border, where the old Border Patrol was always part of the desert landscape. I carry mental snapshots of bored agents on bridges, and of the time — in the late 1960s — that my Mexican grandfather was detained at a checkpoint. Nervously eyeing their holsters, I asked my dad whether they were going to shoot Grandpa. But when we returned with his visa, he was none the worse, joking with them by the side of the road.
The Border Patrol’s roots were planted here, in dusty El Paso, in 1904 when the old Immigration Service started sending officers out on horseback. In the 1920s, Congress slashed immigration levels — continuing to bar Asians, Africans and cutting down on Jews, Arabs and Southern Europeans — while enacting Prohibition. In 1924, it created the Border Patrol to police the Mexican and Canadian borders and the coastlines as well. For the rest of the 20th century, the Border Patrol was out of sight and out of mind for most Americans.
But when a national security panic that swept Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush and Congress gave the Border Patrol a new name, U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And that kicked off the unprecedented growth of the agency’s powers and ranks that continues today — unquestioned, unrestrained and unabated.
Today, CBP spends more than $13 billion yearly, approaching 20 times what it spent in 1990.
But like an iceberg, this is only the tip. The ranks of uniformed agents have swelled to nearly 20,000. Customs and Border Protection has 60,000 employees who check fruit, passports — and fly their own air force: Blackhawks, old Hueys and new European helicopters along with P-3 long-range surveillance planes and the MQ-9, the same Predator surveillance drone that prowls the skies of Afghanistan.
The agency dwarfs in size any police force in America, including the FBI. Customs and Border Protection personnel, along with ICE, comprise the bulk of the Department of Homeland Security — which, though established only in 2002, now is bigger than the active U.S. Marine Corps, founded in 1775.
El Paso, naturally, is home to the agency’s Special Operations Group, which conducts search-and-rescue as well as tactical operations known as BORTAC. Candidates go through intensive training that’s modeled after military special operations: sprints and pushups and drown-proofing in pools, door-busting and fast-roping from helicopters and even sniping. When it’s over, agent are outfitted in digital camouflage and ghillie suits and armed to the teeth. The whole course lasts, reportedly, a single month.
CBP is a paramilitary organization that has grown too large, too quickly with too little oversight.
In its rush to expand, the agency has put some dangerous people in the field. An agent shot and killed a Guatemalan woman, 20-year old Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez, in Texas in May. Another agent, Lonnie Swartz, was acquitted of murder in Arizona this year. But his target — 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, shot 12 times in the back after throwing rocks? He is still dead.
The Guardian reported recently that nearly 100 people have been shot and killed by CBP in the last 15 years, not including those injured in shootings, tasings, beatings and car crashes. Some 28 shot and killed were U.S. citizens, and the youngest was just 12 years old.
In a San Diego suburb, 32-year-old Valeria Munique Tachiquin Alvarado’s family was winding down a wrongful death suit against the agency when agents showed up at her apartment complex without a warrant and started questioning people, according to the Guardian. She drove off and was killed when an agent fired 10 times, striking her nine times.
People by the dozen die in custody annually too, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which reported recently that even child immigrants have been punched, kicked, run over by a patrol vehicle, called “dogs” and sexually abused.
In one case, that of a 16-year-old girl, employees “forcefully spread her legs and touched her private parts so hard that she screamed,” the ACLU reported. And that was during the Obama administration.
Trump isn’t going to do anything about the problem; he’d rather yell about the MS-13 gang. Besides, the once-humble patrolmen on horseback are now certified members of the national security industrial complex. The taxpayer is paying the giant contractor, Accenture, $300 million to recruit 5,000 more officers. Only the next Congress can do something. Maybe.
But remember: You don’t have to live on the Mexican border to live in Occupied America. That’s because CBP has free rein over 100 miles inland of any border or coastline in America.
In this zone, which includes 200 million people, 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure do not apply. Here, agents can stop and search anyone as long as they suspect a violation of immigration law. That’s why Americans boarding buses from Florida to Maine or getting gas in Montana have suddenly been stopped and questioned by border agents.
Abolish ICE? That’s just a start.