Privacy SOS

License to profile: Border police routinely harass medical workers, brown people in southwest USA

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While stuck on a plane last week surfing cable channels I caught a few minutes of a television program aired on the National Geographic network called BORDER WARS. A narrator with a seemingly fake, heavy Texas accent proudly boomed about how tough-as-nails cops and federal agents work hard every day to keep the border zone free of ‘criminal’ elements. It only took a minute for me to realize the targets of the show’s wrath and the law’s long arm were mostly black and brown residents of the border towns in south Texas.

In the couple of segments I could stand to watch, I saw cops and federal agents bust down someone’s door without a warrant, search the apartment, find marijuana in the closet, and arrest multiple people. The cops and feds seemed proud—talking as if arresting a pot dealer was going to go a long way toward establishing order in a lawless land. In another scene, a federal DHS agent tagged along with local police to harass a group of people standing in a parking lot, after a black man was arrested there for marijuana possession. The fed was “collecting intelligence,” which in this case meant stopping and frisking and then interrogating a group of black women and men who were unluckily in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Do you have any tattoos?” the agent asked them, touching their bodies and taking notes. He seemed to think he was onto something, that his victims were likely gang members. They were simply standing in a parking lot.

The show was appalling. In its vision, migrants crossing the border were pests and criminals to be chased, pounced upon, cuffed, and deported. Ordinary black and brown residents of border towns were cast as suspected drug dealers or users—a murky underworld of blurred faces and black wrists in cuffs, bodies just waiting to be slammed on the hoods of police cars for a national television audience. But a new report from the New Mexico ACLU shows these kinds of law enforcement actions and the attitudes underlying them are the norm in the southwest United States today, where federal agencies have turned the most basic principle of US justice on its head. In the border lands today, you are guilty until proven innocent—particularly if you have dark skin.

Despite the national conversation around police violence and repression of communities of color, federal law enforcement’s increasingly brutal, militarized, and authoritarian approach in the border lands has gone largely undiscussed in the national media. That’s a problem, not least because of how large and lawless the border patrol agency has become over the past decade plus. The ACLU of New Mexico writes:

In the past decade, Congressional and Presidential initiatives focused solely on enforcement transformed CBP into our nation’s largest law enforcement agency, and one that operates with little meaningful oversight or accountability. Now with more than 21,000 agents nationwide, Border Patrol views itself as a paramilitary unit that can operate “outside of constitutional constraints.”

And despite the fact that President Obama has responded—albeit very cautiously—to the national outcry over police violence, his administration has utterly failed when it comes to holding federal law enforcement accountable in even the most basic ways. As the ACLU of New Mexico points out,

the federal government too often condones the same tactics used by Border Patrol that it condemns for local police. When the Department of Justice recently took a stand against racial profiling by federal and local police, it effectively exempted Border Patrol from the same standards.

And while the Obama Administration rightfully seeks to identify police best practices, such as transparent data collection to increase accountability to communities for police departments with a history of racial profiling, they remain silent about implementing these same reforms to stop discriminatory policing by agencies under their own roof. Border Patrol’s failure to collect any data on stops or searches not resulting in arrest makes it impossible to detect or deter unlawful and counter-productive conduct by agents.  

The ACLU interviewed dozens of residents who live in the area the federal government considers a “constitution-free-zone”—meaning anywhere within 100 miles of a US border. They found that border patrol officers harass ordinary people all the time. The government’s policies created an environment ripe for abuse, and predictably, there’s plenty of it.

Border Patrol claims incredible authority to stop, question and search individuals within a “reasonable distance” of our international borders. Federal regulations created several decades ago and without any public debate or scrutiny defined this distance as 100 miles. Based largely on this authority, Border Patrol agents operate interior checkpoints where they require all motorists, without any suspicion of wrongdoing, to stop for questioning about their citizenship or immigration status. Agents also conduct roving patrols in communities throughout this 100-mile zone and beyond. Within 25 miles of the border, agents even claim the authority to enter private land, not dwellings, without a warrant.

As a result of this authority, Border Patrol agents’ abusive behavior increasingly affects residents not engaged in any wrongdoing in locations far removed from the physical border. Worse yet, federal guidance on profiling from the Department of Justice in 2003, and most recently in December 2014, largely exempt CBP and allow the agency to write its own rules as to when, how and where their officers and agents should be allowed to profile.

CBP’s license to racially profile produces the consequences you'd expect: about 81% of the abuses documented in the ACLU report were reported by people who self identify as Hispanic or Latino—and 90% of the reported abuses came from US citizens.

The impact on the lives of ordinary people is devastating. Community members describe how they have taken to carrying their passports and birth certificates with them everywhere they go. One woman explained that she thinks agents frequently target her brother “because he has very dark skin.”

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And to the border goons, nothing is sacred—not even medical emergency. Another person told the ACLU that border agents pulled over an ambulance that was rushing someone to the hospital. The agents were upset because the ambulance, sirens blazing, navigated around their border patrol checkpoint. So they held the ambulance for seven minutes, claiming they needed to make sure there was a “body on board,” putting the patient at serious risk of cardiac arrest. Despite the fact that CBP policy requires special authorization to conduct stops and searches at sensitive locations like schools and hospitals, agents frequently harass first responders in a specific hospital parking lot. When EMS workers asked if the agents could conduct the searches elsewhere, they were told “we’ll do it any place and any time we want.”

That’s the theme of the report in a nutshell. Take a few minutes to read it yourself, and watch the videos above and below to hear testimonies from people living under the authoritarian rule of the border police. ‘Papers, please’ is a phrase we associate with Nazi Germany. It’s time the rest of the county, outside the southwest, wakes up to the harsh reality that is racial profiling and state terror in parts of the country that have officially been declared Bill of Rights no-go-zones. And remember: What starts at the border doesn’t stay there.

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© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.