May 25, 2013
Living in a Constitution-Free Zone
Posted on Feb 7, 2013
By Todd Miller, TomDispatch
Don’t think that the eternal bolstering of “border security” is just a matter of fortifying the boundary line, either. Last November, the CBP ordered an additional 14 unmanned aerial vehicles. (They are, however, still waiting for Congress to appropriate the funding for this five-year plan.) With this doubling of its fleet, there will undoubtedly be more surveillance drones flying over major U.S. urban areas like Detroit, Buffalo, Syracuse, Bangor, and Seattle, places the ACLU has classified as in a “Constitution-free zone.”
That zone—up to 100 miles from any external U.S. border—is the area that the Supreme Court has deemed a “reasonable distance” in which to engage in border security operations, including warrantless searches. As in the Southwest, expect more interior checkpoints where federal agents will ask people about their citizenship, as they did to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy in 2008. In the zone, you have the developing blueprint for a country not only in perpetual lockdown, but also under increasing surveillance. According to the ACLU, if you were to include the southern border, the northern border, and coastal areas in this zone, it would contain 200 million people, a potential “border” jurisdiction encompassing two-thirds of the U.S. population.
It’s October 2007 when I get my first glimpse of this developing Constitution-free zone in action at a Greyhound bus station in Buffalo, New York. I’m with Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa, a Mexican lawyer who is brown-skinned and speaks only Spanish. As we enter the station, we spot two beefy Border Patrol agents in their dark-green uniforms patrolling the waiting area.
I have to blink to make sure I’m not seeing things, to remember where I am. I’m originally from this area, but have lived for years along the U.S.-Mexican border where I’ve grown used to seeing the “men in green.” I can’t remember ever seeing them here.
The number of U.S. Border Patrol agents on the northern border went from 340 in 2001 to 1,008 in 2005 to 2,263 in 2010. Now, the number is approaching 3,000. That’s still small compared to the almost 19,000 on the southern border, but significant once you add in the “force multipliers,” since Border Patrol works ever more closely with local police and other agencies. For example, according to immigration lawyer Jose Perez, New York State troopers call the Border Patrol from Interstate-90 outside of Syracuse about a suspected undocumented person about 10 times a day on average. “And we aren’t even in Arizona.”
On that day in Buffalo, the two agents made a beeline for Miguel to check his visa. A moment later, the hulking agents are standing over another brown-skinned man who is rifling through a blue duffle bag, desperately searching for his documents. Not long after, handcuffed, he is walked to the ticket counter with the agents on either side. Somehow, cuffed, the agents expect him to retrieve his ticket from the bag, now on the counter. There are so many people watching that it seems like a ritual of humiliation.
Since 2007, this sort of moment has become ever more usual across the northern border region in bus and train stations, as “homeland security” gains ever more traction and an ever wider definition. The Border Patrol are, for instance, staking out Latino community centers in Detroit, and working closely with the police on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state, leading to a much wider enforcement dragnet, which looks an awful lot like round-ups of the usual suspects.
After 9/11, the Border Patrol’s number one mission became stopping terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from coming into the country between the ports of entry. The Border Patrol, however, is “an agency that doesn’t have limitations,” says Joanne Macri, director of the Criminal Defense Immigration Project of the New York State Defender Association. “With police officers, people have more due process protection.” Since 9/11, she adds, they have become “the national security police.”
And from what we know of their arrest records, it’s possible to grasp their definition of national security. Just in Rochester, New York, between 2005 and 2009, the CBP classified 2,776 arrests during what it terms “transportation raids” by skin complexion. The results: 71.2% of medium complexion and 12.9% black. Only 0.9% of their arrests were of “fair” complexion. And agents have had incentives to increase the numbers of people they sweep up, including Home Depot gift certificates, cash bonuses, and vacation time.
Macri tells me that it is now ever more common for armed national security police to pull people “who don’t belong” off buses and trains in the name of national security. In 2011, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton, there were more than 47,000 deportations of undocumented people along the northern border.
Too Close to Home
The next time Abdallah Matthews crosses the international border, a familiar face asks him the normal questions: Where did you go in Canada? What was the purpose of your trip? Matthews is already in the same CBP waiting area, has already been handcuffed, and can’t believe it’s happening again.
The CBP agent suddenly stops. “Do you remember me?”
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