Opinion

We're seeing the results of Trump's new border enforcement system. They aren't pretty

It’s been five weeks since Donald J. Trump took the oath of office after waging a campaign of fear, and the nation is seeing the results. They aren’t pretty and, in many cases, undercut basic standards of decency, American perceptions of how people should be treated by law enforcement — Customs and Border Protection agents are federal law-enforcement officers — and international perceptions of the United States as place of freedom, refuge and opportunity.

Two high-profile cases involved the detention of Philadelphia-born Muhammad Ali Jr. — holder of one of the most famous names in the world — at a Florida airport where he was questioned about his name and Muslim faith, and a decision by immigration agents, acting on a tip that an immigrant in the country illegally was aboard a San Francisco-to-New York flight, to seek the identifications of everyone on the flight before they deplaned.

The detention of Ali was grotesquely intrusive — he was returning from a trip to Jamaica with his mother, who was not detained, and had identification and a U.S. passport. Ali said that he was repeatedly asked the derivation of his name (his father, born Cassius Clay, adopted it after converting to Islam), and about his religious beliefs.

But even more egregious was the reception border agents gave those landing on the domestic flight to New York. Federal agents, working with flight attendants, asked each passenger to show identification before leaving the plane. The government said later the agents were searching for someone against whom it has a deportation order, and who they believed was on the plane.  (He wasn’t.)

Nothing says “authoritarian regime” like being asked by government agents to show your papers, which is precisely what happened here. In these days of tightened airport security, it’s hard to imagine that any of the passengers felt as though they had the right to refuse. They did, and so do you.

There are more examples of this new hard-edged, and cold-hearted, enforcement regimen. A transgender woman in El Paso was detained at a courthouse as she sought protection against a domestic abuser, an act that will likely resonate among other undocumented immigrants who might be fleeing an abusive partner.

Daniel Ramirez Medina answered that door to ICE agents in Washington seeking his father, and was detained, too, despite holding a waiver from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

Acclaimed Australian children’s author Mem Fox “sobbed like a baby” after being detained at LAX en route to a speaking engagement in Milwaukee.

In Texas, French Holocaust historian Henry Rousso was detained at Houston’s airport and threatened with deportation by agents who questioned the validity of his visa. He was admitted after intervention by lawyers for Texas A&M University, where Rousso was scheduled to deliver the keynote speaker at the Hagler Institute for Advanced Study. Rousso’s area of specialty, ironically enough, is Vichy France, the puppet regime emplaced in the so-called “Free Zone” after the country fell to the Nazis in 1940.

As distressing as these actions are, it’s even more appalling that immigration and border agents say their jobs have become “fun” again. Two unions representing immigration and border agents said “morale amongst our agents and officers has increased exponentially” in the wake of Trump’s policy shifts, which White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said was intended to “take the shackles off” immigration agents.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration fired the man President Obama brought in late last year to try to change a Border Patrol culture that had led to lax oversight, corruption and excessive use of force. This is at the same time Trump wants to loosen hiring requirements to add 15,000 agents to the border and immigration force.

All of which raises the not-so-hypothetical question of who will watch the watchers? And what sort of a nation are we becoming? 

Scott.Martelle@LATimes.com

Follow my posts and re-tweets at @smartelle on Twitter

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UPDATES:

7:55 a.m.: This caption was updated to clarify the time reference and name of the photographer.

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