The sight of unidentified federal officers in full camouflage aiming guns at protesters and press in Portland this week chilled many of us to the bone. They teargassed the crowd, shot stun guns, beat people over the head and body and made 43 arrests. Safe in the White House, Donald Trump vowed to send these shadowy forces on to other cities too. When the militia were later revealed to be US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, I felt less shocked but more worried, because long before they targeted sweet- looking moms locking arms in backpacks and bike-helmets, these same men spent many years terrorizing immigrants. Nestor Ruiz’s mind went there at once, and she tweeted this warning.
Thinking about the night when Ice broke into our home and the only thing visible in the room was the blinding flashlight aiming at my face. My dad was taken, then deported. Now they are after anyone, not just undocu folks, and we are all at risk of what I went through that night.
At a time when immigration has almost come to a complete stop and the president is struggling to uphold his strongman image long enough to be re-elected, we should not be surprised that he is using the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) against his own citizens. The acting DHS secretary, Chad Wolf, repeatedly insisted his officers were being used against “violent anarchists” in Portland, despite incontrovertible evidence that the majority of people protesting police brutality were doing so legally and peacefully. Perhaps this is a natural progression from September 2018, when the then homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stated: “We are building the toughest homeland security enterprise America has ever seen.” Nielsen was later fired by the president for reportedly not being tough enough. The 2020 budget is a windfall for CBP ($18.2bn) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) ($8.8bn), coming in at 19% higher than the 2019 level. This is an escalation in a pattern that’s been building for decades: today CBP and Ice are more powerful and more resourced than ever before.
I saw this might myself at the Border Security Expo in San Antonio, Texas, in the second week of March. As the country shuddered to a halt in the face of the deadly coronavirus, this CBP conference and shopping trip went right on ahead. The exhibit hall of the Henry B Gonzales convention center is more than 500,000sq ft and within it stood hundreds of stands selling thousands of products designed to stop people in their tracks. Drones, cameras, firearms, walls, vehicles, sensors, cameras, dog kennels; everything was on show, everything was for sale. There were large IT security companies Unisys and smaller start-ups like Dedrone alongside household names like AT&T ( “Our first name has always been American”) and Reebok (“tactical footwear”).
I wandered around until I spotted a young Latino border patrol agent in his green uniform, and asked if he would mind if I stayed beside him since I didn’t have a clue where to begin. My lanyard said “Press” and I told everyone I spoke to that I was there to write about it. The agent told me it was his first time there too and while he seemed a little thrown by my presence, he was unfailingly polite and let me trail him. There weren’t many uniformed border patrol agents there, and vendors were delighted when he stopped at their stand.
Throughout the conference, speakers such as the border patrol chief, Rodney Scott, and Manuel Padilla Jr, the director of the Joint Task Force-West, along with various panelists from security firms, spoke on topics ranging from “congressional influence of border security” to “domain awareness and the evolving role of border patrol and air and marine operations in opening up the sky”. Fear of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction coming across the southern border, long used to justify spending in the post 9/11 panic, never materialized. In March there was little talk of terrorism from the stage, instead the conversation has switched to the equally vague and scary sounding “situational awareness” with frequent references to “transnational criminal organizations” that smuggle drugs and people from Mexico to the US. The cartels are real enough, but I was left with an overwhelmingly vague idea of the real purpose of these huge ultra-militarized agencies. The ever escalating detention and deportation regime is one way they keep busy, and now, with Portland as a test case, we see another.
The Oregon governor, Kate Brown, said: “This is a democracy, not a dictatorship. We cannot have secret police abducting people in unmarked vehicles. I can’t believe I have to say that to the president of the United States.” The blurriness of the role and reach of these federal police is not an accident, according to the Cuny Graduate Center sociology professor Dr David Brotherton. “It’s interesting that they’ve gone straight to these outfits that have very vague protocols, it’s vague as to who oversees them, unlike the US marshals, say. These guys have more leeway.” Having worked in and studied nations governed by dictators over decades, Brotherton sees familiar patterns emerging. “You send these storm troopers in with no intention of restoring order, rather they are agent provocateurs stirring it up. With all the paraphernalia, the gas masks, the armored cars, what is the end game? Is it creating a feeling of ungovernability, creating a feeling that it’s all out of control? That is the point, so that he can say: ‘I’m coming in to save you.’”
Again, this fascistic savior narrative of one man needing to take back control is not a new one, it has long used both rhetorically and politically against immigrants. As most of us paid scant attention, the last couple of decades have seen millions of immigrants picked up by CBP and Ice, to be detained and even deported with little or no recourse to appeal. These include permanent legal residents, visa holders and undocumented people with long-term lives and citizen kids; a small minority with criminal records, most without. They were picked up at work, while dropping their kids to school, or in the middle of the night from their homes. In a number of cases, family members had and have no idea where their loved ones are being held. Did we think, in this deeply carceral and militarized country, that CBP and Ice would stop there?