Petty tyrants

Man this first-person account from journalist Seth Harp upon his return to the U.S. from Mexico is beyond infuriating.   What is so clear is that many of the border partrol officer (goons) enjoying abusing their authority, simply because they can.  Somebody annoys them with a glib answer and they decided to use absurd, quasi-Constitutional powers (the Supreme Court really needs to step in here) to take it out on people.  An excerpt:

My work as a journalist has taken me to many foreign countries, including frequent trips to Mexico. On May 13, I was returning to the U.S. from Mexico City when, passing through immigration at the Austin airport, I was pulled out of line for “secondary screening,” a quasi-custodial law enforcement process that takes place in the Homeland Security zone of the airport.

Austin is where I was born and raised, and I usually get waved through immigration after one or two questions. I’m also a white man; more on that later. This time, when my turn came to show my passport, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer was more aggressive than usual in his questioning. I told him I’d been in Mexico for seven days for work, that I was a journalist, and that I travel to Mexico often, as he could see from my passport. That wasn’t enough for him, though. He wanted to know the substance of the story I was currently working on, which didn’t sit right with me. I tried to skirt the question, but he came back to it, pointedly…

In retrospect, I was naive about the kind of agency CBP has become in the Trump era. Though I’ve reported several magazine stories in Mexico, none have been about immigration. Of course, I knew these were the guys putting kids in cages, separating refugee children from their parents, and that Trump’s whole shtick is vilifying immigrants, leading to many sad and ugly scenes at the border, including the farcical deployment of U.S. troops. But I complacently assumed that wouldn’t affect me directly, least of all in Austin. Later, I did remember reading a report in February about CBP targeting journalists, activists, and lawyers for scrutiny at ports of entry south of California, but I had never had a problem before, not in a lifetime of crossing the Texas-Mexico border scores of times on foot, by car, by plane, in a canoe, even swimming. This was the first time CBP had ever pulled me aside.

When asked to comment on specific details in this story, a CBP spokesperson responded with a canned statement replete with the sort of pseudo-military terminology that betrays the agency’s sense of itself not as a civil customs service but as some kind of counterterrorism strike force. “CBP has adapted and adjusted our actions to align with current threat information, which is based on intelligence,” the statement reads in part. “As the threat landscape changes, so does CBP.” The agency declined to put me in touch with Moncivias and the other officers named in this account or to make an official available for an interview, but a CBP source mentioned that the “port director” had reviewed “the tape” of the encounter. I found that very interesting, because I had specifically asked Moncivias and the other officers if I was being videotaped or recorded, and they had categorically denied it…

That was just the beginning. The real abuse of power was a warrantless search of my phone and laptop. This is the part that affects everyone, not just reporters and people who keep journals.

IN GENERAL, LAW enforcement agents have to get a warrant to search your electronic devices. That’s the gist of the 2014 Supreme Court case Riley v. California. But the Riley ruling only applies when the police arrest you. The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether the same protections apply to American citizens reentering the United States from abroad, and federal appeals courts have issued contradictory opinions. [emphases mine] In the absence of a controlling legal authority, CBP goes by its own rules, namely CBP Directive No. 3340-049A, pursuant to which CBP can search any person’s device, at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. If you refuse to give up your password, CBP’s policy is to seize the device. The agency may use “external equipment” to crack the passcode, “not merely to gain access to the device, but to review, copy, and/or analyze its contents,” according to the directive. CBP can look for any kind of evidence, any kind of information, and can share what it finds with any other federal agency, so long as doing so is “consistent with applicable law and policy.”…

CBP has been doing warrantless device searches since the advent of the modern smartphone, Cope said, but the practice has increased by some 300 percent since Trump took office…

It was around 4 p.m. when Moncivias finally finished up and informed me, anticlimactically, that I was free to go. I couldn’t wait to get outside because the detention area was freezing. No wonder Spanish-speaking migrants call CBP detention la hielera — the icebox. I took my phone and laptop and silently packed up my luggage, which still lay disemboweled on the desk, underwear and all. Pomeroy was gone by this time. As I was walking out, I said to Moncivias and Villarreal, “It’s funny, of all the countries I’ve been to, the border guards have never treated me worse than here, in the one country I’m a citizen of, in the town where I was born.”

“Welcome back to the USA,” Moncivias said.

So, here’s what I got to thinking.  There’s probably a huge selection bias of people with bad character– who really like exercising arbitrary authority just because they can– seeking out these jobs.  In a better world, the CPB bureuacracy would do every thing it can to ensure that these types do not join the Border Patrol at higher rates.  These are exactly the sort of people who should not be in these jobs in a properly-functioning democracy.  One incident like these, and all the agents who harassed Harp should be out of job.  Alas, encouraging petty tyrants is clearly just standard operating procedure for this agency.  This is so wrong and so truly un-American and so sadly completely Donald Trump’s America.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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