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The Bridge: The Border's Closer Than You Think

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Nearly two out of three people in the U.S. live in the border zone.

That means roughly two-thirds of the population lives under the jurisdiction of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — our country’s largest law enforcement agency. Within the boundaries of the border zone, CBP can engage in everything from racial profiling to warrantless surveillance with impunity. The extent of their power makes them a danger to non-citizens and citizens alike, especially given the fact that there are only flimsy accountability measures keeping them in check.

In this edition:

  • The unchecked power of the Border Patrol
  • A terrible tool in the wrong hands
  • The urgent need for accountability, before it’s too late

The Biden administration recently enacted a slew of tough border policies in an attempt to address the unprecedented movement across the U.S.-Mexico border. The new policies have drawn criticism for what they could mean for migrants seeking humanitarian aid. But what’s missing from the coverage — and is just as concerning — is the central role Border Patrol will play in enforcing these new policies. Stricter immigration laws could mean an even more uncompromising CBP, which should worry us all. That makes now a crucial time to consider CBP’s excessive power and take steps to bring accountability to the agency. Earlier this month, my colleague, Senior Legal Analyst Katherine Hawkins, released a report on the troubling, far-reaching extent of CBP’s power and how we can check it. Read the report on our website.

Read Now: The Border Zone Next Door

Outsized authority

CBP is charged with safeguarding our country and securing its ports of entry, and that comes with a shocking amount of power. Within the bounds of its jurisdiction — in the “border enforcement zone” — Border Patrol can stop and question citizens and non-citizens, based on no suspicion, for practically any reason at all. (And yes, despite racial profiling being illegal, CBP’s work is an exception to that rule.) CBP can board buses and trains to check the immigration status of those travelling. They can check for drug possession and make arrests, including for the possession of marijuana in states where its use is legal.

And CBP can do more than just search and arrest. They also have the power to engage in warrantless surveillance. The agency can collect license plate data from the vehicles that drive through its checkpoints. It also gathers data from cell phones, in addition to collecting biometric data through facial recognition technology at ports of entry, including airports, on citizens and non-citizens alike.

On oversized terrain

CBP has the outsized authority to enact its power in all these ways, often with excessive force, and almost always with impunity — as long as it’s done in the agency’s jurisdiction. You may think that jurisdiction is far from you, but chances are it’s closer than you think. CBP can conduct its business within 100 air miles from any external boundary in the United States. That makes it so that nearly two out of three people in the U.S. live in the border enforcement zone.

A sleeping giant

CBP’s vast jurisdiction and excessive power makes them a danger to a lot of people. We’ve already seen CBP weaponize its surveillance technology against dissenters and protestors. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, there could be a reality in which CBP could restrict access to abortions by questioning and blocking people from traveling through CBP checkpoints. And this is not pureconjecture.

Taking back control

It’s critical that we don’t wait until it’s too late to curb CBP’s power. There’s plenty the Biden administration can do right now, starting with bringing in the fences on CBP’s jurisdiction. Other critical, past-due checks include:

  • Limiting CBP’s interior checkpoints, which undermine our right to travel freely
  • Banning racial and religious profiling in the border zone, where it is currently permitted
  • Requiring proper documentation, disclosure, and investigation of all of CBP’s activity
  • Banning CBP’s use of surveillance tech and collection of biometric data
  • And more, which Katherine gets into in her report

These checks, combined with vigorous congressional oversight, could rein in CBP and help prevent abuses in the future. With the humanitarian crisis at hand, there’s no time to waste.