Police-state tactics at the U.S.-Mexico border

The real crisis at the border is of Trump’s own making.


Earlier this year, a journalist friend of mine (he asked me not to use his name for fear of reprisal) headed to Tijuana to interview some of the Central American migrants camped out in makeshift shelters throughout the city, looking for the best way to enter the U.S. and ask for asylum. When he attempted to cross the border on his return, my friend was taken to “secondary” screening. No reason was given, but a Customs and Border Protection agent asked him, over and over, “What did the migrants tell you?” After hours of waiting and intimidation, another agent gave him his card and asked him to reach out. “He told me he could use my help,” my friend told me.

This is not normal: CBP has no business questioning journalists about their work or trying to enlist them to give away information about their sources. But under President Donald Trump, the practice has become commonplace. Over the past year, journalists have complained to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) about being asked to provide information about the migrant caravan or to hand over video footage and submit to interviews over “potentially illegal conduct.” “Custom and Border Protection’s apparent use of secondary screening as a pretext for questioning journalists about their reporting is akin to treating the media as informants and is a worrying sign for press freedom,” said CPJ’s Alexandra Ellerbeck. That’s the sort of statement more commonly made about press freedom in Russia, Nicaragua or Thailand. Today, though, it is very much a U.S. story, and a very troubling one, alongside other recent policies and measures — deployment of National Guard along the border, the criminalization of humanitarian workers, the separation of migrant children from their parents and the extended detention of asylum-seekers — all done in the name of defending the homeland, and fighting crime and terrorism. What once happened elsewhere, under faraway authoritarian regimes, is now taking place in front of us and rapidly eroding the moral core of American society. 

U.S. Border Patrol agents in San Diego speak to migrants and journalists in Tijuana through the U.S. border wall while responding to a group of Central American migrants who crossed the border illegally.
Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press

One government agency in particular has come to represent this shift: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. It’s relatively new, founded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But in its brief existence, ICE has built up a massive immigrant detention network, along with a history of abuses. ICE’s 2019 budget asked for almost $9 billion to run a system that would hold 52,000 people in detention every day. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen claims that 3,755 “known or suspected terrorists” have been prevented from traveling to or entering the U.S. But as of two years ago, the State Department declared there was “no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States.” The buildup of police and immigration enforcement is common to authoritarian regimes: Under military strongman Hosni Mubarak, Egypt boasted 1,500 policemen for every 100,000 people.

“There is no political blowback for ICE; in fact, they have the continued support from the president,” Mike Turner, who oversaw ICE’s San Diego office and retired from the agency 11 years ago, told me. “I look at the separation of immigrant parents and their children, and if I was to go back 15 years ago, I can’t believe we would have allowed that to be done the way that it was done. I can’t envision how they’re doing that from a moral and ethical stance.”

When I asked Turner how an agency that was created to combat terrorism became a deportation machine, he sighed, and measured his response. “I did not think we should be chasing every last undocumented person working at a fast-food restaurant,” he said. The Trump administration, however, has encouraged ICE to arrest and deport at will, setting the agency free from any previous restraints observed even during then-President Barack Obama’s record-high deportations.

Now we’re witnessing how the current regime has created the ongoing spectacle of a “border crisis” to support its immoral treatment of immigrants, people who try to help them and all who bear witness to their situation. It is worth repeating these truths again and again: Illegal crossings are currently at a 46-year low. The National Guard has no business enforcing immigration laws. Asylum seekers are not criminals. And ultimately, there is no need for razor wire along the border wall in Nogales, Arizona, nor for taller concrete planks along the San Diego border.

There is no real crisis at the border. The White House’s latest declaration of a national emergency there is the only real crisis — and it is undermining the rule of law and democracy in a manner disturbingly similar to what only happens in police states. 

I used to cross the San Diego-Tijuana border regularly for work. Coming back into the U.S. by car meant getting stuck in a ridiculously long and slow-moving line of traffic until you reached a tollbooth, where a CBP agent asked whether you were a U.S. citizen, and sometimes wanted to see your passport. When I was asked what I’d been doing in Tijuana, I’d always tell the truth: I was out reporting — doing my job, talking to people. I hope the generations of journalists who come after me will be able to answer that question so honestly.

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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