By JAMES LYALL POLITICO
How the Border Patrol is running amok and making a mockery of the rule of law.
Remarkably, despite the clear 100-mile regulation, Border Patrol asserts that is not bound by any geographical limitations. Its agents believe they can, and often do, conduct operations much farther than 100 miles from the border. And, so far, no one in government has questioned their legally dubious power grab. As a result, an increasing number of individuals are encountering violent, poorly trained and totally unaccountable federal agents farther and farther from the actual border.
Clarisa Christiansen, a resident of Three Points, Ariz., was on her way home from picking her children up at school when she was pulled over by Border Patrol. She was roughly 40 miles from the border. Without explanation, an agent demanded that she exit the vehicle. When she refused, the agent threatened to cut her out of her seatbelt with a pocket knife and summoned another agent to “get the Taser” before forcibly removing her keys from the ignition.
After the agents finally left, Clarisa discovered one of her tires had been slashed, leaving her stranded in the desert with two small children. Border Patrol then proceeded to ignore her efforts to obtain compensation and an apology. After the ACLU inquired on Clarisa’s behalf, Border Patrol responded with a form letter. The agency told her that in order to recover $50 for the destroyed tire, Clarisa would have to file a federal lawsuit. Clarisa’s complaint to DHS oversight agencies, like Ernestine Josemaria’s, has been ignored.
The list of stories I’ve heard of Border Patrol agents’ overstepping their authority go on and on: Wrenching people from their cars at gunpoint, throwing senior citizens to the ground, destroying personal property.
We’ve documented CBP’s absolute disdain for processing refugee children, which more than one official has described as “babysitting.” We’ve received multiple reports of agents calling employers to try to have people—innocent people whose only offense was to question Border Patrol authority—fired.
We’ve heard time after time from ranchers like John Ladd, whose family has lived along the Arizona-Sonora border for generations, describe agents regularly trespassing on private land and damaging property. Agents even threatened to shoot John’s dogs.
Things have gotten so bad that residents are increasingly responding to the Border Patrol’s reign of terror with direct action. The people of Arivaca, Ariz., a 700-person town about a dozen air miles from the border, have become so fed up with the disrespect they feel at one of the three checkpoints surrounding their town that they’ve demanded the checkpoint’s removal. They have also started monitoring agents’ behavior from the side of the road. Border Patrol, in turn, has responded in characteristic fashion, blocking access to the public roadside in order to impede monitoring efforts. The residents of nearby Tubac, Ariz., saddled with a checkpoint of their own, are considering a similar initiative.
The ACLU sometimes refers to the border region as a “Constitution-free” zone because of the broad and vague authority given to Border Patrol and the agency’s abusive practices. But there’s a problem with this designation. It implies that people don’t have constitutional rights when they’re within 100 miles of the Atlantic or Pacific coast, Canada or Mexico. In fact, people do not give up their rights by entering the border region. Border Patrol agents should not pull people over without suspicion of wrongdoing or assault individuals who assert their right to be free from unlawful searches. A more accurate statement would be that Border Patrol behaves like it is a Constitution-free agency.
I’ve documented scores of stories of Border Patrol abuse and impunity, but I know that what I’m seeing is only the tip of the iceberg. Border Patrol abuse is vastly underreported. This is likely the main reason that the abuses on the border have been relatively unknown outside the Southwest.
Many people are afraid to report rights violations, and most do not fully understand what their rights are. Sadly, Border Patrol violence has become so normalized that many people, poorly trained agents included, often don’t realize that anything is wrong when someone like Clarisa Christiansen is pulled over on a whim—even if an agent’s behavior is clearly illegal.
Vargas’ experience of feeling “trapped” shone a brief national spotlight on the reality of life in border zone. The militarization of the border region impacts people from all walks of life—from the ranchers whose fences are cut by trespassing agents to the Latino motorists stopped on pretext in downtown Tucson.
Gil Kerlikowske, the new head of CBP, must implement fundamental reforms to erase his agency’s deeply ingrained culture of impunity and stem the lawlessness border communities experience daily at the hands of their own government. Kerlikowske has repeatedly commented on the need for increased transparency and accountability. I hope he follows through. The livability of our communities depends on it.