WHEN NEWS BROKE that thousands of current and former Border Patrol agents were members of a secret Facebook group filled with racist, vulgar, and sexist content, Carla Provost, chief of the agency, was quick to respond. “These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see — and expect — from our agents day in and day out,” Provost said in a statement. “Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”For Provost, a veteran of the Border Patrol who was named head of the agency in August 2018, the group’s existence and content should have come as no surprise. Three months after her appointment to chief of the patrol, Provost herself had posted in the group, then known as “I’m 10-15,” now archived as “America First X 2.” Provost’s comment was innocuous — a friendly clapback against a group member who questioned her rise to the top of the Border Patrol — but her participation in the group, which she has since left, raises serious questions.
“YES, WE DO have concentration camps,” began the stinging critique of the Trump administration’s immigration detention facilities. It was written earlier this week by the editorial board of the Salt Lake Tribune, in the reliably conservative state of Utah.Andrea Pitzer, author of the definitive book on the global history of concentration camps, agrees. So do people who were once forced to live in another era’s concentration camps.But amid the debate about what to call immigration detention facilities, few people have disputed the truly terrible conditions that exist within them. Migrants have long reported awful experiences in immigration custody, but in recent months, an increase in the number of people, especially families and children, crossing the border and being detained has led to severe overcrowding.Dr. Dolly Lucio Sevier was granted access to a Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, and wrote in her report about it that “the conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.” They “felt worse than jail.” The kids she examined were forced to endure “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.”
I was naive about the kind of agency CBP has become in the Trump era. Though I’ve reported several magazine stories in Mexico, none have been about immigration. Of course, I knew these were the guys putting kids in cages, separating refugee children from their parents, and that Trump’s whole shtick is vilifying immigrants, leading to many sad and ugly scenes at the border, including the farcical deployment of U.S. troops. But I complacently assumed that wouldn’t affect me directly, least of all in Austin. Later, I did remember reading a report in February about CBP targeting journalists, activists, and lawyers for scrutiny at ports of entry south of California, but I had never had a problem before, not in a lifetime of crossing the Texas-Mexico border scores of times on foot, by car, by plane, in a canoe, even swimming. This was the first time CBP had ever pulled me aside.
Right now, anyone – citizen or not – entering the Land of the FreeTM can be subject to warrantless probing of their electronics, which can be seized for further study in the lab for months if necessary. It’s just that citizens can’t be prevented from entering their home country: you can have your equipment taken and scanned, you can be questioned for hours, but you’re still ultimately allowed in. Foreigners, on the other hand, have no such protections: they can be searched, grilled, and sent back the way they came, if immigration officials deem you to be a problem.
The draft legislation – which is still in its early stages – is essentially designed to make it a lot tougher to stop and search citizens on the spot when they return to the US of A. However, the bill is weighed down with one major caveat. If officers have serious concerns about a traveller but have no time to get a warrant, they can seize the electronics and later apply for a warrant retroactively. If the warrant application fails, all the information harvested must be destroyed and may not be used in further prosecutions.
These CBP agents — like too many other law enforcement officers — had no idea how to react when their authority was challenged. They only saw one route to take: escalation.
Cooke knew the CBP agents needed something in the way of reasonable suspicion to continue to detain her. But they had nothing. The only thing offered in the way of explanation as they ordered her to return to her detained vehicle was that she appeared “nervous” during her prior interaction with the female CBP agent. This threadbare assertion of “reasonable suspicion” is law enforcement’s blank check — one it writes itself and cashes with impunity.
The CBP supervisor then stated he’d be bringing in a drug dog to search her vehicle — another violation of Cooke’s rights. The Supreme Court very recently ruled that law enforcement cannot unnecessarily prolong routine stops in order to perform additional searches unrelated to the stop’s objective.
If the purpose of CBP is to secure borders and regulate immigration, then this stop had very little to do with the agency’s objectives. Cooke is an American citizen and had not crossed a border. If the CBP’s objective is to do whatever it wants within x number of miles of the border, then it’s apparently free to perform suspicionless searches. In this case, the CBP was operating in drug enforcement mode, but even so, it still hadn’t offered anything more than Cooke’s alleged “nervousness” to justify the search and detainment. Additionally, the CBP’s decision to bring in a drug dog raised the bar for justification.