The Border Patrol Has Vast, Largely Unchecked Powers That Are Expanding

The Border Patrol has largely avoided the scrutiny that police have come under in recent years. That should change: the Border Patrol’s powers are increasingly authoritarian, with few legal checks, and expanding throughout the United States.

Inspired by the violent culture of the Texas Rangers, the US Border Patrol was established in 1924 as a relatively small agency with little oversight and limited domain. Existing only along the US-Mexico border, the agency’s early goal was to enforce immigration restrictions.

Today, with more than 60,000 employees, seemingly endless jurisdiction, increasingly sophisticated use of surveillance technology, and a continued lack of oversight, the US Border Patrol has become one of the largest — and most threatening — enforcement agencies in the world.

On July 1, 2020, former acting secretary of Customs and Border Patrol Mark Morgan tweeted that the agency was working alongside local law enforcement across the nation to protect cities amid protests of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. “As a federal law enforcement agency, it’s our duty and responsibility to respond when our partners request support,” he asserted on Twitter.

Soon after, videos surfaced online of armed men with few official markings other than the word “POLICE” written across their clothing hauling away Black Lives Matter protesters from the streets of Portland, Oregon. As later evidence would show, these mysterious agents came from the Border Patrol. Far from the border and with authority beyond the confines of the Constitution, including the power to carry out unwarranted stops and interrogations, the Border Patrol’s presence in Portland represented a further advancement of the agency’s mission to become a national police force.

In his recent book Nobody Is Protected: How the Border Patrol Became the Most Dangerous Police Force in the United States, political geographer Reece Jones tells the story of how the US Border Patrol developed into the powerful, lawless agency it is today. While historians have previously provided excellent historiography of the Border Patrol, the narrative in Jones’s book urges an imperative question for immigrants’ rights activists and all Americans alike: For how long are we willing to allow the Border Patrol to exert and expand its extraconstitutional power?

In the following interview with Jones, he lays out the story of how a number of landmark but little-talked-about Supreme Court cases shaped the Border Patrol’s current powers, the role of race in the rise of the Border Patrol, the post–September 11 “border-industrial complex,” and why all Americans should pay attention to the dangerous possibilities of the Border Patrol’s expanding powers.

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