One day in July, 2014, during a humanitarian crisis in which tens of thousands of Central American migrants crossed the U.S. border without papers, three government buses carried a group of women and children toward a Border Patrol station in Murrieta, California. Before they could get there, however, angry protesters gathered along a roadway to block their path, holding signs (“Go home!”) and chanting (“U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”). After a brief standoff, the drivers were forced to turn around and take their passengers elsewhere. Murrieta became an instant flashpoint in an ugly debate over immigration that summer, but the incident also raised a logistical question: How did the protesters even know the buses were coming? The Department of Homeland Security, of which the Border Patrol is a part, had not publicly released information about them.
In the days that followed, conservative news outlets reported that the protesters had received tips about the bus trips from a San Diego-based Border Patrol agent named Ron Zermeno, who was also a representative of the largest Border Patrolmen’s union, called the National Border Patrol Council. Zermeno’s politics were no secret; he’d made several appearances on cable news to lambast the D.H.S. for transporting undocumented migrants to detention facilities rather than deporting them outright. According to a report by the Center for New Community, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, Zermeno was just one of many National Border Patrol Council representatives who have coördinated with anti-immigrant activists in recent years—giving them tours of the borderlands, leaking information and data about migrants to them, and delivering testimony at their behest before Congress. While some of these activists have been local vigilantes, others have come from two of the most prominent nativist groups in the country: the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (C.I.S). The Southern Poverty Law Center considers both of them “hate groups.” (The National Border Patrol Council has denied suggestions that it works improperly with these groups and insists that it meets with organizations from across the political spectrum.)
Under the Trump Administration, the relationships between anti-immigrant stalwarts and Border Patrol are being strengthened, and formalized, as never before. Border Patrol is part of Customs and Border Protection, which in turn is a division of the D.H.S. Late last month, when President Trump announced his executive order on border security in his first address to employees at the D.H.S., he singled out Brandon Judd, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, for praise. (Judd had served on Trump’s transition team.) Not mentioned in the speech was Mark Morgan, the chief of Border Patrol. He resigned the next day. Gil Kerlikowske, the former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, who had been Morgan’s boss at the end of the Obama Administration, said that he’d been forced out by the union, which had always viewed him, a former F.B.I. man, as an agency outsider. “The union supported this candidate for president, and now very much appears to be directing things—which is absolutely unheard of in law enforcement,” Kerlikowske told the Washington Post.
In the meantime, the D.H.S. was making some telling new hires. Julie Kirchner, the former executive director of FAIR, was named as an adviser to Customs and Border Protection’s acting commissioner. The agency said in an e-mail that she was a “temporary political appointee,” which made the fact of her government role no less startling. A lawyer by training, and a former staffer on the Minnesota House Judiciary Committee, Kirchner has been considered a key legislative strategist in FAIR’s advocacy of state-level anti-immigrant measures. James Tomsheck, who served as the C.B.P.’s head of internal affairs from 2006 to 2014, told me he was alarmed by Kirchner’s appointment. “The views of FAIR are repugnant,” he said. “Bringing someone like her into the agency will only validate the distorted view of immigrants at the border that too many agents already have.” A few days after the announcement of Kirchner’s job, two former government officials told the Post that Jon Feere, a longtime Center for Immigration Studies staffer, was joining the D.H.S. in “an immigration-related position.” (When the Post asked Feere about this, he refused to confirm it, saying only that he was “between jobs.”) In his time at the Center for Immigration Studies, Feere had argued in favor of ending birthright citizenship, and he has attacked Dreamers—undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children—on the grounds that they’re insufficiently loyal to the United States.
Last week, I also called a Texas-based Border Patrol agent, who requested anonymity because he feared reprisals for speaking out about his colleagues. He told me that with Trump as President, “morale in the agency is sky-high.” The National Border Patrol Council, which represents some sixteen thousand patrolmen out of the roughly twenty-one thousand who work for the agency, endorsed Trump during the campaign, and though the move was made without a union-wide vote, it galvanized the rank and file.
“They love Trump’s straight-up, no-nonsense talk,” the Border Patrol agent said of his colleagues. “It’s how the guys want to talk. Anything Trump does, they’re going to defend him at all costs.” The President’s immigrant-bashing on the campaign trail, along with his repeated promises to deport millions of people, appealed to many patrolmen. His rhetoric reaffirmed a vision of law and order forged on the front lines by the agents themselves, rather than from the top down. It also legitimized some creeping hostility toward immigrants. “You can feel the racism with some of the guys,” the agent told me. “They say stuff like, ‘these illegals should go back to their own countries.’ There’s some real hatred there.”
Border Patrol traces its history back to 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge created a small force of inspectors—called “mounted guards”—who patrolled from El Paso to California on horseback, mainly to look for Chinese immigrants. But until the last decade or so, the agency’s patrolmen were viewed as law-enforcement castoffs. When Bill Clinton took office, in 1993, Border Patrol consisted of four thousand agents, mostly based along the two-thousand-mile-border with Mexico. Tomsheck, who joined the C.B.P. during George W. Bush’s Presidency, told me that the attitude at Border Patrol had always been “us against the world.” A particular gripe among patrolmen was a policy known, pejoratively, as catch and release, in which migrants who were apprehended near the border were released pending a hearing before an immigration judge. During the Clinton years, eighty per cent of migrants who were released after their initial apprehension never showed up for their appointed court date. Border Patrol agents felt undermined. Politicians kept issuing sweeping edicts on immigration policy from Washington, while the agents were left to deal with the fallout. One official said in 2014, “There was a lack of intestinal fortitude to address the border. We were being overrun.”
The agency’s circumstances changed after 9/11. The government created the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, and within the new department, the C.B.P. was formed by merging Border Patrol with customs inspectors, who worked at airports and other border crossings. Congress lavished funds on the C.B.P.: between 2001 and 2012, the number of Border Patrol agents doubled, to roughly eighteen thousand. The new agents “were assured they were not law enforcement but part of a military agency tasked with securing the border,” Tomsheck said in an interview last year. The agency was also adding agents faster than it could vet and train them all. “At some point it became more important to have people in seats than it was to have qualified people in seats,” James Wong, a senior C.B.P. internal-affairs officer, told Politico in 2014. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, more than two thousand C.B.P. agents were arrested for misconduct between 2005 and 2012. In Tomsheck’s view, the agency was rife with abuse, and there was a lack of institutional accountability. “The agency had problems with misconduct, lack of sensitivity to immigrants, and violence along the border,” he told me. Any attempt at oversight was met with hostility, especially from the increasingly powerful union. (Tomsheck retired in 2014 after repeated disagreements with agency leadership.)
While the C.B.P. grew in numbers, the agency operated without a permanent commissioner for the first six years of the Obama Administration. It wasn’t until 2014 that Kerlikowske was confirmed by the Senate. He immediately promised to investigate dozens of cases involving agents’ use of deadly force along the border. “Frankly, we need to be better at admitting when we’re wrong or where we’ve made a mistake,” he told NPR. That March, after a Border Patrol agent attacked and raped three migrants, Kerlikowske clashed with agency staff, who didn’t want him to draw any more negative attention to the C.B.P. by making a public comment about the incident, according to an account published in Politico. It took an appeal to Jeh Johnson, the head of the D.H.S., before Kerlikowske could even issue a boilerplate statement expressing concern about the incident. “The guys hated Kerlikowske. They hated Jeh Johnson,” the Border Patrol agent from Texas told me. “Why? Because Obama appointed them.”
Donald Trump has long been signalling to agents that he’s on their side. “When President Trump says that he’s going to let law-enforcement agents ‘do their job,’ it’s insidious code,” Chris Rickerd, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in the C.B.P., told me. As Brandon Judd, the head of the Border Patrol Council, told an interviewer last summer, “I’ve seen the lawlessness on the border . . . and [Trump] has seen how that affects the morale of the Border Patrol not being able to do your job. . . . He wants to take those handcuffs off.”
We’re now seeing a preview of what happens when Border Patrol agents feel emboldened to take matters into their own hands. Last month, when Trump signed his executive order barring travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, it immediately raised questions about implementation: How would green-card holders be treated? And what would happen to travellers taken into custody at airports? The chaos was revealing. One complaint, filed to the inspector general of the D.H.S. by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Cardozo Law School, detailed twenty-six accounts from lawyers and families members who were prevented from seeing clients and relatives being held by C.B.P. agents at airports. When C.B.P. agents were pressed to explain the situation, their answers ranged from “Just following orders” to “Call Mr. Trump.” Invoking the President was their cover.
The detentions at airports around the country attracted most of the public attention, but airport-based agents aren’t the ones on whom agency critics have typically focussed. Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border tend to have a rougher reputation; plus, they work in comparative isolation in the borderlands, roving around with considerable discretion and limited oversight. These agents are “gatekeepers for whether a migrant sees an asylum officer or not,” Rickerd said. If an agent refuses to acknowledge that an asylum seeker is afraid to return to his home country, then the asylum seeker is denied the “credible fear interview” needed to begin the asylum process. “Often, it’s the word of the agent versus the word of the migrant,” Rickerd said. Since the Presidential election, there have been numerous reports of asylum seekers being turned away at the border by C.B.P. agents. A C.B.P. spokesperson responded by stressing that the agency “didn’t tolerate any kind of abuse,” and insisted that there had been “no policy change” at the agency since Trump assumed office. But that, after all, may be the problem: with a new President behind them, agents can feel free to improvise.