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Calling Out Border SWAT Teams

Terry H. Schwadron

Feb. 17, 2020

News that the Trump administration wants to deploy SWAT-like teams from the border patrol to U.S. cities to aid in rounding up immigrants ought to be sending major chills through the body politic.

The New York Times and The Washington Post outlined plans to deploy 100 specially trained border troops into so-called sanctuary cities across the country in a blow against localities that are resisting Donald Trump’s orders to make immigration arrests the top law enforcement issue of the day.

Instead, of course, police in those cities — which include New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Boston, New Orleans, Detroit and Newark — believe that keeping public order and being able to reach into immigrant communities is more important. Police in all those cities say if they arrest violent criminals who lack immigration paperwork they will notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but not for relatively minor issues like driving violations.

Nevertheless, the plan is for deployment of these elite officers, who train with Special Forces-type tactics to fight drug and people smugglers in rough terrain, will be deployed to aid regular border police in urban settings where they lack the authority to, say, smash into buildings or conduct other high-risk operations. In other words, they are being taken from the dangerous border, where as BORTAC, they target violent criminal smugglers, and sent to stand in the street ringing doorbells of people suspected of failing to file the correct paperwork. The goal of the new joint operation, one official said, was to increase arrests in the sanctuary jurisdictions by at least 35 percent.

Someone as skeptical as me might just argue that this is a publicity stunt that will neither make us safer nor serve as efficient policing. Let’s see, does the idea of sending 100 elite officers to 10 cities between February and May “in order to enhance the integrity of the immigration system, protect public safety, and strengthen our national security” strike you as the best way even to achieve Donald Trump’s vision of an immigrant-free America?


Rather this is part of Trump, agent of retribution, who actively dislikes the policies that give rise to sanctuary cities and states. This deployment is just the latest in a series of vengeful policies meant to punish localities where local leaders take a different stance on immigration than his own. That’s why Census policies matter, why the feds have moved against New York State’s decision to grant drivers’ licenses without regard to immigration status, why every campaign remark about allowing health care for immigrants is taken as a slap in the face to the White House.

No, this is about politics, not about immigration controls. For Trump, these anti-immigrant moves are weapons to be dispatched as part of reelection campaigns.

The Times quoted officials as saying that the elite troops will be asked to support interior officers in run-of-the-mill immigration arrests made more difficult in sanctuary cities. What they will do, for sure, is to raise fear levels.

I found it interesting that Gil Kerlikowske, the former commissioner of Customs and Border Patrol, the agency which oversees tactical units along the border, told The Times that sending the officers to conduct immigration enforcement within cities, where they are not trained to work, could escalate situations that are already volatile. He called the move a “significant mistake,” adding “If you were a police chief and you were going to make an apprehension for a relatively minor offense, you don’t send the SWAT team. And BORTAC is the SWAT team. They’re trained for much more hazardous missions than this.”

On the border, BORTAC agents may engage in armed confrontations with drug-smuggling suspects using armored vehicles. In cities, immigration agents are enforcing civil infractions rather than criminal ones. They are not allowed to forcibly enter properties in order to make arrests.

ICE agents typically seek out people with criminal convictions or multiple immigration violations as their primary targets for deportation, but family members and friends are often swept up in what are known as “collateral” arrests. ICE leadership requested the help in sanctuary jurisdictions because agents there often struggle to track down undocumented immigrants without the help of the police and other state and local agencies.

The counter-argument is that greater immigration enforcement pushes the undocumented further into the shadows, making normal law enforcement more difficult.


Trump’s main arguments about sanctuary cities have included cherry-picked incidents in which an immigrant here without documentation was involved in a violent crime. For each, immigration advocates have produced individual incidents in which border police abused individual rights in restaurants, workplaces and social gatherings to round up or even wound individuals who later were deported, with family ties and decades of work, military service and community left asunder.

Social scientists note that immigrants as a group commit fewer crimes than Americans at large. But, of course, this is not about Science.

Other recent attempts at aggressive enforcement by ICE have included a series of raids targeting more than 2,000 migrant families in several cities last summer. It resulted in only about 35 arrests. Some Border Patrol agents are permitted certain enforcement powers, including setting up immigration checkpoints, within 100 miles of a land or coastal port, which would include some cities in this targeting list. ICE acting director Matthew Albence said the BORTAC agents would help alleviate “resource challenges” produced by sanctuary policies.

ICE has 5,300 enforcement officers nationwide, to handle more than 3 million immigrants. ICE arrested 143,000 immigrants last year inside the United States, a 10 percent drop and the lowest number since Trump took office. The White House budget proposal released Monday also sought more than $500 million to hire thousands of additional ICE agents.

The question is what level of priority to assign these issues.


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