Monday, February 27, 2017

CBP: A controversial presence at the rural border

Donald Trump broke any of a number of molds in his improbable path toward the presidency, including his capture of three union endorsements: the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), and the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council (NICEC). The FOP stayed out of the 2012 contest, and the NBPC and NICEC endorsements were historic firsts. As Trump has launched an aggressive and chaotic immigration policy that involves build-ups of both the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), new attention is being paid to the culture within CBP.

A recent piece in The New Yorker describes ties between influential members of the NBPC and anti-immigrant groups. On its webpage, the NBPC neither confirms nor denies most of these linkages, and it challenges the description of groups calling for reduced immigration as "anti-immigrant." The NBPC also emphasizes the danger CBP officers face, the "humanitarian mission" they fulfill when encountering stranded border crossers, and a collective desire to promote "rule of law."

In addition to the ties between NBPC and immigration-restrictionist groups, there are other reasons to suspect CBP agents may harbor anti-immigrant sentiment. Sources in the New Yorker piece describe "creeping hostility toward immigrants" among CBP officers that includes an "us against the world" mentality. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) counts more than 50 deaths and dozens of excessive-force incidents involving CBP officers over a six-year period. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a wrongful-death case brought by the family of a 15-year-old Mexican national who was shot and killed on Mexican soil by a CBP officer.

Critics have alleged that post-9/11 growth of the force has included "unfit" officers and fostered a culture of impunity and violence. (Note: while the growth rate immediately after 9/11 was lower than in the period prior, the Border Patrol force doubled in the decade after.) The challenges CBP faces are not merely exogenous: a former CBP commissioner acknowledges that the force was infiltrated by members of criminal cartels.

Unsurprisingly, the CBP's field officers are clustered around the country's perimeter, mostly along the southern border. (Perhaps surprising: in 2015 the share, 86 percent, of Border Patrol agents at the southern border was as low as it was in 1989.) While Border Patrol conducts its operations mostly in extremely rural places, most unauthorized immigrants concentrate in urban areas.

These combined trends make CBP's presence in rural communities a strange phenomenon. On the one hand, CBP's budget roughly tripled since 9/11 and increased by about half under President Obama. This influx of spending power, much of it accruing to Border Patrol officers in rural areas, brings potential for economic renewal in rural places. On the other hand, CBP drew flak for spending more than six times the market rate to build new homes for Border Patrol agents in a town of 4,400 with a 30 percent vacancy rate. And while the border area is described by Trump and other "law and order" advocates as a frighteningly dangerous place, crime statistics actually show that border communities are safer than major cities and even comparable non-border towns. This may be due in part to invasive CBP practices, which vex local residents despite the lack of anonymity expected in rural places.

Whether in bustling airports or at the remote frontier, CBP officers are our green-shirted proxies when visitors first arrive from abroad. Recent events suggest that agents' loyalty to Trump may exceed their avowed fidelity to the rule of law. The agency's power and resources will likely grow in the coming years, affecting the lives of rural people as well as a growing demand from Americans across the country that we put our values ahead of our fears. By keeping a watchful eye on these trends, we can ensure that CBP represents the country we want to be.


Kyle Kate Dudley said...


This is a very interesting post. It brings up such an important and disappointing truth about how people that we would hope could be somewhat neutral are, in fact, an extremely partisan (and perhaps terrifyingly xenophobic) group. I'd love to see a "Part II" that delves deeper into the impact that Border Patrol agents have on rural communities. The Daily Beast article you included about the town of Ajo makes me wonder: if CBP tends to be anti-immigrant, and has the potential to take over small towns in which agents are stationed, will CBP stoke the fire of an already immigrant-unfriendly milieu in rurality? It seems likely. I hope I'm wrong.

Willie Stein said...

I'm curious to know if you know the jurisdictional range of this agency? I vaguely recall that their jurisdiction is limited to an area surrounding US Borders (which ultimately covers huge swaths of the country), but I'm having trouble finding that information. The issues you raise about a culture of impunity and disrespect for the rule of law make a broad jurisdictional range very troubling. Trump's union endorsements by nearly every worker for what might be called the repressive state apparatus (to engage my long-ago reading of Louis Althusser) are a pretty good indicator that he intends to consolidate support of the rank-and-file enforcers. CBP is a good example of an "apolitical" agency that doesn't engage policy at the same depth as, say, the military, that is more solidly behind Trump than many skeptics in the Pentagon.

Wynter K Miller said...

Kyle, I appreciate your thoughtful examination of the multi-dimensional issues associated with the CBP. In many ways, the information you convey suggests some interesting possible conclusions. For example, this post suggests that CBP presence in rural America is "a strange phenomenon" because undocumented immigrants tend to concentrate in urban areas. How does this fit with statistics cited in earlier posts on this blog that "[u]ndocumented people make up 50 to 70% of the farm workers who pick our fruit, plant our vegetables and do everything in between"? (See The Boston Globe article cited in that post states, "Trump’s policy goals may soon force Americans to confront the fact that we rely heavily on undocumented immigrants for more than half of our food labor supply." (See And yet, by contrast, the Washington Post article in this post states, "The flocking of undocumented immigrants to metropolitan areas belies the image of undocumented immigrants as employed in typically rural jobs, such as agriculture." (See Ostensibly, there is an explanation which harmonizes the seeming juxtaposition raised by these dual narratives (e.g., there are millions of people in urban areas, and comparably few in rural areas. Even if 70% of agricultural workers are undocumented workers, that figure might still constitute only a small percentage of the total immigrant population in the United States), but in the differing presentation of the statistics by the aforementioned major news outlets, I'm reminded of the famous Mark Twain quote about statistics.

Kyle said...

Thanks for this feedback!

@Kyle Kate -- It would be great to take a deeper dive into attitudes toward immigration in these communities, and maybe to compare those trends to before/after data about CBP field offices opening. I'm not sure the historical data are there, though. Anecdotally, webpages like this ( suggest that CBP families are coming into communities without expecting much support from their new neighbors. I'm sympathetic to the challenges of entering a new community, and this seems like a positive resource. But the flip side is that it might perpetuate an us/them divide between locals and the CBP newcomers. Insofar as this firewall exists, the outlooks of the two groups might diverge rather than converge. An anecdote that supports this: a CBP officer caught flak for a "only American families will receive candy" sign outside his home during Halloween. ( Presumably the backlash came from non-immigrant, non-CBP families.

@Willie -- Your recollection is correct. Section 287 of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes CBP to conduct its operations "within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States." The regulations (8 CFR § 287.1(a)(2)) define "reasonable distance" as 100 air miles. Additionally, a 2004 decree establishes CBP's authority to subject certain noncitizens to "expedited removal" if they are found within this zone and cannot establish that they have been present for at least 14 days. To determine how long one has been here, CBP often has to question the individual. (Trump's executive order purports to extend this probationary period to the statutory maximum of two years (see INA § 235(b)(1)(A)(iii)(II)).

@Wynter -- This is a good point of clarification. I share your instinct that the "undocumented people cluster in cities" claim belies the fact that they may also form large portions of rural communities. However, my understanding is that this mostly happens in rural places with some industry draw, like agriculture or meatpacking, but seldom in the small border towns through which newcomers pass. The incongruity I was trying to describe concerns CBP officers' reportedly mixed record of being "good neighbors" in these towns. "Strange presence" felt like a more appropriate descriptor than "occupying force."