Civil Liberties

Unsafe at Any Border: U.S. Border Patrol Corrupt, Violent, Flush with Funding—And Unaccountable


Wikimedia Commons

Politico Magazine has a lengthy expose by Garrett M. Graff of the financially bloated, systemically corrupt, often violent U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Earlier manifestations of the CBP, such as the Immigration and Naturalization service, have historically been understaffed, underfunded, and largely ignored. But the post-9/11 hysteria heightened fears about border security, leading to the creation of the CBP under the Department of Homeland Security. It also ensured that the new border protection agency would get a generous share of the national security cash pie.

The CBP during the Bush years morphed into a goliath lumbering along America's borders. Tom Ridge, Bush's post-9/11 homeland security czar, recalled that "people just wanted to give me unlimited amounts of money."

The agency would eventually grow into "the nation's largest law enforcement agency, with its 46,000 gun-carrying customs officers and border patrol agents and massive $12.4 billion annual budget":

Customs and Border Protection not only employs some 60,000 total personnel—everything from desert agents on horseback to insect inspectors at airports—but also operates a fleet of some 250 planes, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles like the Predator drones the military sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, making CBP both the largest law enforcement air force in the world and equivalent roughly to the size of Brazil's entire combat air force.

The Border Patrol wing of this vast apparatus has experienced particularly dramatic growth: By the time the Bush administration left Washington, the fiercely independent agency—part police force, part occupying army, part frontier cavalry—had gone from being a comparatively tiny, undermanned backwater of the Justice Department to a 21,000-person arm of the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country.

The Bush administration had been keen on increasing the capabilities of the agency as quickly as possible. This urgency came with its own human price tag—one the Obama administration has been unwilling to address:

Corruption and excessive force have also skyrocketed along with the massive hiring surge. In fact, between 2005 and 2012, nearly one CBP officer was arrested for misconduct every single day—part of a pattern that Ronald Hosko, former assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigation division, calls "shocking." During Obama's first term, the sheer number of allegations was so glaring that, according to two CBP officials, DHS under Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered Customs and Border Protection to change its definition of corruption to downplay to Congress the breadth of the problem.

That redefinition differentiated between two supposedly distinct types of corruption:

The agency began to differentiate between "mission-compromising corruption"—bribery, narcotics-smuggling or human-smuggling allegations—and "non-mission-compromising corruption," a "lesser" category of cases that included things like employees' sexually assaulting detainees or workplace theft. Only the "mission-compromising" problems, the agency now decreed, would be reported to Congress…The distinction helped them wipe nearly a third of the corruption cases out of statistics.

Graff lists some examples:

There was the Miami CBP officer who used his law enforcement status to bypass airport security and personally smuggle cocaine and heroin into Miami. There was the green-uniformed agent in Yuma, Arizona, who was caught smuggling 700 pounds of marijuana across the border in his green-and-white Border Patrol truck; the brand-new 26-year-old Border Patrol agent who joined a drug-smuggling operation to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana in Del Rio, Texas.

Not to mention the excessive force complaints, the victims of CBP assault, and those killed by trigger-happy border agents.

The expansion of the CBP into one of the most dangerous government agencies in America should be deeply unsettling to everyone—particularly now, when roughly two-thirds of Americans live in a "border" zone where the government claims the right to conduct stops and searches without warrant or cause. 

The piece is eminently worth reading in its entirety.