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 ultimately concentrate in urban areas. Thus, the communities where CBP makes its presence felt are only affected by the temporary transit of unauthorized immigrants. (This is not to say that migration has no effect on these communities: see here for a discussion of some of the local impacts.)
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.