Last Saturday morning, a Canadian woman named Fadwa Alaoui left her home in Brossard, across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, and drove an hour southeast, to the border crossing at Highgate Springs, Vermont. Alaoui was travelling with her two young children and an adult cousin. They planned to spend the day shopping in Burlington. At the crossing, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers asked Alaoui, who was born in Morocco and wears a hijab, for the password to her phone, so they could examine it. They asked for her cousin’s password, too, according to the account Alaoui gave to CBC News, and proceeded to review the women’s phones for about an hour.
After examining the phones, the C.B.P. officers questioned Alaoui and her cousin for about forty-five minutes each. They asked Alaoui for details of her religious practice—for the name of her mosque and imam, and for an account of the discussions she heard there—and to explain Arabic-language prayer videos on her phone. Eventually, the officers informed Alaoui and her cousin that they had been denied admission to the United States. Alaoui told the CBC that they said she was “not allowed to go to the United States because we found videos that were against us.” A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection told the CBC that the agency “does not discriminate on the entry of foreign nationals to the United States based on religion, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.” But this did not even account for another line of questioning: the officers asked Alaoui what she thought of Donald Trump’s policies.
The most visible civic actions during the first three weeks of the Trump Administration have involved resistance: the massive Women’s March, the targeted demonstrations at airports, and the congressional town halls packed with the President’s opponents. But there have been other scenes, featuring some of the President’s staunchest supporters—rank-and-file members of the border-patrol and policemen’s unions, and many sheriffs—who have been feeling out what new authority they have under this Administration.
Some episodes—the reports of increased immigration raids in Los Angeles and other cities, and the President’s promise last month to “send in the Feds” to deal with violence in Chicago—have seemed like portents of more aggressive enforcement to come. But the scenes at the border have been the most alarming. At Dulles, the Sunday after Trump signed his travel ban, lawyers asked C.B.P. officials for access to detainees, presenting them with a copy of a federal judge’s order that they grant it. The copy of the order was returned to them, The Washingtonian reported, with the message that “It’s not going to happen.” That same day, four members of Congress, from Virginia and Maryland, were flatly denied access to detainees at Dulles. “Is that really an unreasonable request?” Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, asked afterward. More recent reports suggest that there is still a special intensity to C.B.P. scrutiny. Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, wrote an account of being detained when she entered the United States at a Puerto Rican airport, and subjected to “questioning unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in over 25 years of travel into and out of this country.” Shamsi, a legal permanent resident of the United States and a Pakistani citizen, wrote that a C.B.P. officer holding her Pakistani passport asked why “someone working with an organization with ‘American’ in its name would have this passport.”
During the first three weeks of the Trump Administration, the White House has seemed intent on suggesting that laws are no longer so settled, and that the rules governing officials’ behavior are in flux. The pattern is too consistent to be accidental. When the federal judge James Robart temporarily blocked the travel ban nationwide last Friday, Trump denounced him on Twitter as a “so-called judge” and insisted that Robart’s injunction “will be overturned!” When John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security, spoke in defense of the ban before the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday, he derided the “academic” concerns of judges. “Of course, in their courtrooms, they’re protected by people like me,” Kelly said. Many American institutions seem prepared, right now, to consistently frustrate the President’s authoritarian instincts. But the rank-and-file security forces are among the rare official groups (apart from the Republican majority in Congress) who have been reliable supporters of Trump, and whom the President would like to see unconstrained. The sheriff of Rockwall County, Texas, who, along with other county sheriffs, met with the President at the White House this week, told Trump about a state senator who was pushing for reforms to civil forfeiture. “Who is the state senator? Do you want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” Trump said.
If some law-enforcement officers are not exactly defending the laws—if they are refusing orders requiring that they cease deportations and provide access—then what are they defending? The only answer is that, over the first weeks of this Administration, they have turned to defending Trump’s politics. This is why C.B.P. officers felt free to ask a Canadian citizen what she thought of the President, and why they turned away members of Congress at Dulles with no deference. A physics student at McGill, who was travelling to attend the Women’s March in Washington last month, was also turned back at the border by a C.B.P. officer. The student told CBC that “The first thing he asked us, point-blank, is, ‘Are you anti- or pro-Trump?’ “ The officer who stopped Fadwa Alaoui said that she was being denied entry because her cell phone contained “videos that were against us.” Who, you wondered, did the officer mean by “us”?