If you were under the notion that America’s borders are our international boundary lines with Mexico and Canada, think again. The US government’s notion of “borders” has long been much more legally expansive than most people realize; the “border” is increasingly everywhere.
Americans learned that the hard way when “Trump troops” were let loose on the streets in Portland, assaulting protesters and pulling people out of their cars. These agents in military camouflage without insignia include the Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol Tactical Unit (Bortac), which usually operates on the US-Mexico border
Border agents have long had something close to extra-constitutional powers. In the 1950s, Washington decided that a reasonable distance from the border for enforcement purposes was 100 miles. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has criticized this as an attempt to create a “constitution-free zone”, though the organization emphasizes that constitutional protections apply everywhere in the US, regardless of proximity to the border.
At that time Congress made that decision, the border patrol was less than 1,000 agents. The force has since grown dramatically. Today there are 21,000 border patrol agents. Most of that growth is relatively recent: the number of agents more than quintupled from 1994 to the present day. The agency’s budget has also grown massively: since 1980 US government budgets for border and immigration enforcement have increased 6,000%.
Approximately 200 million Americans, or about two-thirds of the US population, reside within 100 miles of the border. This means that millions of Americans are within the patrol’s enforcement areas and subject to a permanent state of legal exception by armed agents and intrusive surveillance technology. This includes major cities such as San Diego, Tucson, El Paso, Buffalo and Detroit. Coastal areas such as Portland, Chicago, New York and Washington DC are also included in this zone, where agents are permitted to regularly search and seize based on “reasonable suspicion”.
“We are exempt from the fourth amendment,” a Customs and Border Protection official once told me.
In other words, agents been doing for decades what they were shown to be doing in Portland the last few weeks. They can snatch people in the middle of the desert, pull them out of their cars at checkpoints, or right off the street. They can interrogate, arrest and detain anyone at any time in these “border zones”.
On top of this, Bortac, Customs and Border Protection and the patrol have long been doing operations outside of their “traditional roles”. Since 9/11, for example, they have done perimeter surveillance operations at Super Bowls, which have included pulling undocumented people from nearby Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains.
Bortac was formed in 1984 as a special forces unit to quell unrest in immigration prisons. In 1992, it was deployed with other federal forces to Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Bortac agents were involved in the custodial seizure of Elián González in 2000, and the manhunt for inmates who escaped from Danemora prison in 2015. More recently, Bortac joined up with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) in a show of force against undocumented people in sanctuary cities.
CBP and the border patrol have also had presence at other protests, including the Standing Rock Dakota Access pipeline blockade, counter-demonstrations at Trump’s 2017 inauguration, and the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd. This includes sending a drone over Minneapolis, deploying agents in Washington DC, and of course, Portland. According to the Trump administration there is more to come and they will be sending these forces to several cities around the US.
And if these examples aren’t enough to illustrate the pervasiveness of the US border enforcement apparatus, CBP and particularly Bortac have also been deployed to Guatemala, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya and Haiti, among other places, as part of the US push to extend its border around the globe. Since 9/11, in particular, the border patrol has become a veritable “national security” police force with counter-terrorism as a priority mission.
As these special forces extend into the country and across the world, the underlying question becomes: just where is the US border? The “border” is much more than just a line between two countries. It is a racialized border between elites and the working class, and between the government and dissidents wherever they are located.
On Friday, Border Patrol agents, including members of BORTAC, raided a No More Deaths humanitarian aid camp in Arivaca, Arizona, arresting more than three dozen border crossers receiving medical care. They also confiscated the phones of the No More Deaths volunteers in the camp. The 24-vehicle raid was led by an armored Bearcat personnel carrier, as if at war.
This should deeply trouble us. So should the fact that the “border” – and the extra-constitutional powers it brings – is increasingly everywhere.
Todd Miller is the author of Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the US Border Around the World and Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security. He resides in Tucson, Arizona
This article was amended on 12 August 2020 to clarify the ACLU’s position