As part of its campaign of intimidation against state and local governments that choose not to collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Trump administration officials have confirmed plans for two new tactics in their anti-immigrant agenda. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will deploy Border Patrol’s special forces-style unit, known as BORTAC, and other Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents — dressed in plainclothes — into Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Boston, New Orleans, Detroit, and Newark. And it is reportedly launching Operation Palladium, enlisting 500 special agents for an “enhanced arrest campaign” designed to “flood the streets” of these same cities.
The potential target list is much longer. The Trump administration claims that it needs to deploy BORTAC and other special agents to so-called “sanctuary cities” where, as DHS has said, “our officers are forced to make at-large arrests” — rather than take custody of individuals from state and local law enforcement who honor ICE hold requests (also known as detainers.) But nearly a quarter of all counties in the U.S. now restrict or refuse altogether to honor those hold requests from ICE according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, making them all potential targets for the administration’s attacks.
In one sense, these announcements are pure political theater, designed to look tough and stoke fears of immigrants during an election year.
In another sense, they are part of a very real attack on the prerogatives of state and local governments to focus their resources on local public safety and welfare needs, rather than on federal immigration enforcement.
Under the anti-commandeering principle of the Tenth Amendment, the federal government cannot force states to participate in a federal regulatory program, including by requiring states to use their resources for it. Local officials are right to reject detainers, which can violate the Fourth Amendment and are often riddled with errors. ICE has, for example, wrongly issued detainers for thousands of U.S. citizens, resulting in U.S. citizens being detained and processed for deportation.
The Trump administration first announced the BORTAC deployment on February 14, calling it a “national security” measure. Then last week, officials tried to downplay it. In classic double-speak, Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan told Congress: “We have 100 individuals, 50 officers, 50 agents. They’re all volunteers. Some of them just happen to also be BORTAC agents. But there’s no BORTAC element.” He also revealed for the first time that last year BORTAC had joined “over 70 operations” with ICE.
There’s much we still don’t know about how BORTAC will work with ICE. What we do know are some of the risks of further militarization of our streets. BORTAC agents are specifically trained for high-risk enforcement operations domestically and abroad. They operate in border communities that are already highly militarized. They receive additional weapons, such as stun grenades, and enhanced Special Forces-type training, including sniper certification. BORTAC “acts essentially as the SWAT team of the Border Patrol.”
“In short, BORTAC personnel are not meant to focus on routine operations in some of the United States’ largest cities, and there is no need for them to be part of these operations,” Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey wrote. That’s why nearly 70 members of Congress have already written DHS expressing concern.
It is all too easy to imagine BORTAC agents further escalating situations where ICE agents are already known to use excessive force, including arrests at courthouses and worksite raids. And with Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf’s announcement that these SWAT-like agents would be dressed in plainclothes — disguising officers trained for special operations to navigate communities undetected— that risk will be heightened further.
In border communities, unaccountable CBP officers have repeatedly committed serious abuses. At least 94 people have died following CBP encounters since 2010, including in shootings, car chases ending in deadly crashes, and when CBP officers forced a young man to drink liquid methamphetamine. CBP claims unconstitutional authority to search and seize nearly anyone within the 100-mile border zone, raising a litany of civil rights concerns.
ICE and CBP do not view themselves as accountable to Congress or the public. Police who work with these agencies risk being associated with their abuses. And local collaboration with federal immigration enforcement is bad for public safety: It destroys trust between law enforcement and local communities, as people fear that by interacting with police – reporting a crime tip, acting as a witness, seeking protection as a victim – they or their loved ones will end up being taken away by ICE. The Major Cities Chiefs Association, the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and attorneys general from New York, Oregon, Washington, Rhode Island, and DC and local law enforcement leaders from across the country have come out against local police entanglement with ICE.
Bottom line: Ramping up immigration enforcement makes local communities less safe. State and local governments are right to enact policies that protect immigrants and citizens alike from the Trump administration’s intimidation. ICE and CBP need to be reined in — not unleashed and let loose on our cities.
Naureen Shah, Senior Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU