In…Almeida-Sanchez v. United States in 1973, Justice Thurgood Marshall, an icon of the civil rights movement and the first Black man to serve on the Supreme Court, asked a series of questions that pressed the government’s lawyers about the true extent of the Border Patrol’s authority on American highways deep inside the United States. Unsatisfied with the response, Marshall finally asked if the Border Patrol could legally stop and search the vehicle of the president of the United States without any evidence or suspicion whatsoever. When the lawyer said “Yes,” Marshall concluded, “Nobody is protected.”
The Border Patrol in their green uniforms, patrols between crossing points. Customs was renamed the Office of Field Operations, its agents, in blue uniforms, work at crossing points and in airports. Agents of a third unit of CBP, Air and Marine Operations (AMO), wear brown uniforms and manage the agency’s aircraft and ships. AMO’s authorization in the U.S. code differs from the Border Patrol in that it does not include any geographical limits, so they are able to operate anywhere in the country.
So a few military-looking sorts in camo, with automatic weapons, rush up to you, grab you by both arms and stuff you into an unmarked van that speeds away. Only a general “Police” insignia on their uniforms, wearing shades at night, covering their faces, no explanation of why you are being abducted. Where are you? Russia? Turkey? The West Bank? How about Portland, Oregon, July 2020? What the hell was the Border Patrol doing in Portland anyway, at a demonstration protesting the police murder of George Floyd, an event having zero to do with immigration?
In Nobody is Protected, Reece Jones explains how it has come to be that an agency created to protect the border, and to deal with immigration issues has seen its domain grow to the point where it can operate in most of the country, and take on missions having absolutely nothing to do with crossing a border. What makes them particularly dangerous is that they do not live by the laws that govern the rest of the police forces in the nation. Do they need probable cause to stop your vehicle? Not really. How about a warrant? A BP agent laughs. Can they use racial profiling for selecting who to stop? Of course. That a problem? Oh, and they are now, taken together in their three parts, adding in ICE, the largest police force in the nation. Sleep tight.
Reece Jones – image from Counterpoint – photo by Silvay Jones
Jones looks at the history of border patrol efforts prior to the establishment of BP in 1924. He tracks the changes in the characteristics of the BP over time, while noting some of the traits that have not changed at all. The Texas Rangers of the early 20th century figure large in this, complete with reports of Ranger atrocities and their considerable representation in the Border Patrol once it was set up. As Mexico outlawed slavery long before the USA, one of the things the Rangers did was intercept American slaves trying to flee the country. The mentality persisted into the BP force, along with those Rangers. Jones offers reminders that the charge of the patrol was often racist, reflecting national legislation that sought to exclude non-white immigrants, with particular focus on Mexicans and Chinese. Exceptions were made, of course, to accommodate Texan farmers during the seasons when labor was needed. A guest worker program was established to compensate for many American men being away during World War II.
Willard Kelly, the Border Patrol chief at the time, told a Presidential Commission in 1950 that “Service officers were instructed to defer apprehensions of Mexicans employed on Texas farms where to remove them would likely result in the loss of crops.” Instead, they would focus on the period after the harvest in order to send the workers back to Mexico. Similarly, during economic downturns, the Border Patrol would step up enforcement to ensure the state did not have to provide for the unemployed laborers. These roundups would often happen just before payday, so agribusinesses got the labor and the agents got their apprehension quotas, but the Mexican workers were not paid.
Outside the illuminating history of the force itself, much of what Jones offers here is a delineation of the laws that define where BP responsibilities and limitations lie, looking particularly closely at several Supreme Court decisions.
We have all heard of Roe v Wade and Brown v the Board of Ed, cases decided (some later undecided) by the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), that were major legal landmarks. Roe established a right of privacy that made abortion legal across the nation. Brown established that separate-but-equal was not a justification for continuing segregation in public schools. There are many such landmark cases. In Nobody is Protected, Reece Jones looks at the rulings that have allowed the Border Patrol to become a dangerous federal police force, subject to far fewer limitations than any other police force in the nation. These cases, while not household names like Roe and Brown, are of considerable importance for the civil rights of all of us, not just immigrants. In Almeida-Sanchez v. United States in 1973, SCOTUS allowed the BP to search a vehicle without any justification. In its 1975 decision in The United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, SCOTUS was ok with agents using racial profiling for selecting vehicles to stop. In 1976, SCOTUS held in The United States v. Martinez-Fuerte that BP could establish checkpoints in the interior of the USA and detain anyone to ask about their immigration status.
So you live nowhere near the border, right? Shouldn’t impact you. But hold on a second. By administrative fiat, BP was granted a one hundred mile border zone. And not just from the expected Mexican and Canadian borders, but from the edge of the land of the USA. So, this means that two thirds of the population of the United States falls within BP’s rights-light border zone. Fourth Amendment? What fourth amendment?
Jones reports on a crusader named Terry Bressi, an astronomer who has been stopped 574 times (as of the writing of the book) while driving to work at an interior checkpoint. He got fed up and started videotaping all his interactions with checkpoint law enforcement, for posting on line. They did not like that. They hated even more that he knew his rights and stood up to bullying by local cops that had been assigned to the checkpoint.
You will learn a lot here. About a policy of Prevention through Deterrence that channeled thousands of would be immigrants and asylum seekers away from normal points of entry, toward perilous crossings. And if they should not survive the effort? Sorry, not our problem. And they try to interfere with people who simply want to save the lives of those coming into our country at risk of their own lives.
In addition to failing to properly search for missing people in the border zone, the Border Patrol also actively disrupts efforts by humanitarian agencies. Beyond the destruction of water drops and aid stations, they often refuse to provide location information to other rescuers, deny access to interview people in Border Patrol custody who were with the missing person, and harass search teams in the border zone.
As No More Deaths volunteer Max Granger, explained, “The agency itself is causing the deaths and disappearances. Any response, even if it is a more robust response, is going to be inadequate. Their entire overarching prevention through deterrence policy paradigm requires death and suffering to work. They are not invested in saving people’s lives.
You will learn of agency mission creep, from border control to drug enforcement to testing for radiation in vehicles (which catches a lot of cancer patients, but so far no dirty bomb terrorists) to actions that are blatantly political in nature and patently illegal.
I expect you will not be shocked to learn that abuse by BP personnel goes largely unpunished. No action against the agent was taken in over 95% of cases of reported abuse. When the Inspector General for the agency tried to investigate the 25% of BP deaths-in-custody that were deemed suspicious, he was stopped (this last bit is from the This Is Hell interview, not the book).
The BP manifests a Wild West mentality that is not much changed from when it was staffed with slave hunters and disgruntled confederates. One thing that has changed is the increasing politicization of immigration by fear-mongering Republican demagogues, and the increased concern over national security brought about by 9/11. There are vastly more agents on the force today. In the 1970s, for example, there were only about fifteen hundred BP agents. Today, just in the BP wing of Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) there are almost twenty thousand. The Field Operations branch adds another twenty thousand, and the Air and Marine Operations branch tops that off with another eighteen hundred. Another twenty thou in ICE, and it gets even larger. Jones may not be entirely correct when he says that the Border Patrol, per se, is the largest police force in the USA, but when these four connected wings are considered as one, ok, yeah, it is.
Jones offers some do-able solutions in addition to proposing legislative changes that might rein in this growing giant, and increasing threat to the rights of all Americans. It is usual for books on policy to toss out solutions that have zero chance of seeing the light of day. So, sensibility here is most welcome.
I have two gripes with the book. There needed to be considerable attention paid to the SCOTUS decisions that have allowed the BP to expand its legal domain. But Jones dug a bit too deep at times, incorporating intel that slowed the overall narrative without adding a lot. In fact, a better title for this might have been The Gateway to Absolute Police Power: SCOTUS and the Border Patrol. Second is that there is no index. Maybe not a big deal if one is reading an EPUB and can search at will, but in a dead-trees-and-ink book, it is a decided flaw.
Bottom line is that Reece Jones had done us all a service in reporting on how a federal police agency has grown way larger than it needs to be, has accumulated more power than it requires to do its job, and has used that power to feed itself, to the detriment of the nation. He points out in the interview that border security has become an “industrial-complex” much like its military cousin, albeit on a smaller scale, with diverse public and private vested interests fighting to sustain and expand the agency, regardless of the value returned on investment. It is a dark portrait, but hopefully, by Jones shining some light on it, changes might be prompted that can rein in the beast before it devours what rights we have left.
Despite the transformation of the border in the public imagination, the people arriving there are largely the same as they always were. The majority are still migrant farm and factory workers from Mexico. In the past few years, they have been joined by entire families fleeing violence in Central America. These families with small children, who turn themselves in to the Border Patrol as soon as they step foot in the United States, in order to apply for asylum, pose no threat and deserve humane treatment. However, that is not what they have received. As journalist Garrett Graf memorably put it, “CBP went out and recruited Rambo, when it turned out the agency needed Mother Teresa.”
Review posted – 7/29/22
Publication date – 7/5/22
I received a hardcover of Nobody is Protected from Counterpoint in return for a fair review. Thanks, KQM.
This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
Profile – from Counterpoint
REECE JONES is a Guggenheim Fellow. He is a professor and the chair of the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawai’i. He is the author of three books, the award-winning Border Walls and Violent Borders, as well as White Borders. He is the editor in chief of the journal Geopolitics and he lives in Honolulu with his family.
—–This is Hell – Nobody is Protected / Reece Jones – audio – 52:10 – by Chuck Mertz – this is outstanding!
Items of Interest
—–The Intercept – 7/12/19 – BORDER PATROL CHIEF CARLA PROVOST WAS A MEMBER OF SECRET FACEBOOK GROUP by Ryan Deveaux
—–No More Deaths – an NGO doing humanitarian work at the border
—–Holding Border Patrol Accountable: Terry Bressi on Recording his 300+ Checkpoint interactions (probably over 600 by now)
—–My review of The Line Becomes a River, a wonderful memoir by a former BP agent