Beyond the Border: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Presence at Racial Justice Protests in Summer of 2020
Thursday, September 21, 2023
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed by Minneapolis, Minnesota police officers. Bystanders filmed the encounter showing Derek Chauvin, one of the policemen, holding his knee on Floyd’s neck as he lay on the ground while handcuffed. Chauvin suffocated Floyd for over nine minutes as bystanders called on him to release Floyd. The other policemen present did nothing to prevent Floyd’s death. This brutal act of police violence quickly sparked an international movement protesting anti-Black police brutality. The protests following George Floyd’s death represented some of the largest series of organized actions for racial justice in U.S. history.
Despite protests being overwhelmingly peaceful, law enforcement authorities frequently used force, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray against civilians and journalists. As law enforcement cracked down on protesters, it became clear that federal authorities, in addition to local law enforcement, were involved in policing efforts. Media reports in June 2020 exposed U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s role in policing protesters and the public began to understand the extent to which CBP—an agency many believed was confined to border enforcement—deployed personnel, aerial surveillance, and other federal law enforcement resources to cities around the country. (Pearland, TX; Bemidji, MN; Niagara, NY; Ellsworth, ME; Port Clinton, OH). In at least one documented instance, CBP personnel utilized unmarked vehicles to remove and detain protestors without identifying the agency.
Shortly following these revelations, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), American Immigration Council (The Council), and other groups filed a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request to seek information and documents about CBP’s role in law enforcement responses to racial justice protests. When CBP failed to respond to the request, the groups filed a lawsuit to compel disclosure. Following the suit and approximately two years after the murder of George Floyd, CBP produced thousands of documents detailing the widespread nature of the deployments, limited last-minute training of CBP officers, and internal confusion within CBP about its enforcement role.
The documents show that CBP often got involved in policing protests without being asked by city or state officials, and that its actions went beyond its supposed mandate to protect federal property. CBP officials were concerned that its agents “do not possess the appropriate crowd control training and equipment” to directly interact with the public, and initially did not know CBP personnel had been involved the arrest of protesters in unmarked vans.
The expanded role of CBP during the final year of the Trump administration may be used as a model for federal law enforcement deployments in the future. CBP’s activities during the 2020 summer protests intimidated protesters and threatened protected First Amendment speech. These extensive enforcement efforts throughout the United States should concern all of those who care about safeguarding our democracy and should mobilize Congress and policymakers to restrain CBP’s presence at future protests.
If the local police will not take meaningful actions nor will the Governor call in the National Guard, then it’s up to us. . . Without meaningful consequences there will not be the deterrent needed.
– Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan
2020 CBP Presence at Cities Across the United States
Records provided in response to our data request show that CBP deployed agents and resources across the country from May to July 2020. Though CBP was deployed at the request of local law enforcement agencies in many cases, it is not always clear how and when local law enforcement agencies requested CBP’s assistance in the cities where the protests took place. In some cases, it was clear that the locality explicitly did not request CBP’s presence. With respect to federal law enforcement’s presence in Chicago in July 2020, Chris Tomney, the director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Operations Coordination admitted as much:
*The operation is set to last 60 days
*There has been no request from the State or City for federal assistance. Federal investigators from DOJ and DHS agencies would be in the city to enforce federal laws and federal investigations.
*Other cities are being discussed for possible additional “surge ops”. Two cities mentioned were Kansas City and Albuquerque.
The map below contains links to specific documents relating to CBP deployments at various cities. If a city or state is not listed on the map, it does not mean that CBP was not deployed there.
CBP was deployed to Portland, Oregon on several occasions during the summer of 2020. The most aggressive deployments occurred between July 2 and July 28 when CBP deployed multiple teams to Portland including SRT (Special Response Team), SOG (Special Operations Group), BORTAC (Border Patrol Tactical Units), BORSTAR (Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue Units), and AMO (Air and Marine Operations). They used less lethal munitions—such as pepper spray— numerous times and were involved in numerous arrests.
Internal agency communication depicts DHS and CBP officials scrambling to confirm CBP’s role in the arrests. In one video clip that went viral, CBP agents were documented arresting an individual and placing the person in an unmarked van. Although CBP officials ultimately confirmed CBP agents’ involvement in the arrest, at first officials were uncertain. CBP’s confusion with respect to the actions of its own officers is reflected in correspondence among high level officials who believed, but were unable to quickly confirm, CBP was involved in the viral arrest.
“I see CBP is on the chain and may have additional info, because it is my understanding that it is very likely that the officers in the Twitter video were from CBP and using a rental minivan to conduct the apprehension on the video. CBP was looking into this last night to obtain more facts.”
Documents show the use of military warfare drones. According to CBP, they deployed Predator B Drones. These drones that flew over Minneapolis protests are intended “to identify and intercept potential terrorists and illegal cross-border activity.”
The FOIA documents also reveal the extent of CBP’s surveillance efforts. For example, as part of their surveillance of protesters in Portland, CBP obtained detailed discussions among users of an encrypted messaging chat room. The intercepted chats were shared among protest organizers discussing safety plans and protest strategy.
CBP’s Authority to Police Protesters
For most, CBP conjures up a law enforcement body that operates near the border or at international airports in the United States. CBP typically operates within a delimited zone of action under which those within the zone have diminished constitutional rights This zone of action extends up to 100 miles inwards from any land or sea border.
In response to racial justice protests, CBP was deployed—not to enforce laws within its zone of action, but pursuant to federal law 40 U.S.C. § 1315 and President Trump’s Executive Order 13933 issued on June 26, 2020. Federal law 40 U.S.C. § 1315 allows the DHS secretary to designate parts of DHS to assist in the protection of “buildings, grounds, and property that are owned, occupied, or secured by the Federal Government.” The executive order was later rescinded by President Biden.
While CBP and other federal agencies were deployed throughout the U.S. under the guise of protecting federal property and monuments—and many of the requests for assistance from local law enforcement obtained through the FOIA productions are nominally framed in terms of protecting federal buildings or property—CBP often went beyond this mandate. For example, during their deployment in Portland, CBP decided to take a more “proactive approach.” The protesters CBP arrested often were accused of violating laws that had nothing to do with federal property, including apparent assault of a federal officer and resisting or impeding a federal officer. Further, documents show enforcement actions included assisting with crowd control, responding to requests for less lethal munitions, providing situational awareness, and general law enforcement.
CBP Agents’ Training and Lack of Accountability
CBP has approximately 60,000 employees. Within their ordinary responsibilities, CBP officers enforce immigration laws against individuals who are attempting to or have crossed the border but remain relatively close to the border.
Interacting with protesters would, at a minimum, require an understanding of the protesters’ First Amendment rights and techniques for conflict de-escalation. However, documents do not indicate CBP officers received any such training. In fact, as CBP began to coordinate efforts with local law enforcement throughout the country in early June, documents provide evidence of admissions by CBP that its own officers were unprepared to interact with protesters. For example, apparently concerned for the safety of CBP officers, the CBP director of the Field Liaison Division within the Office of Field Operations stated that CBP personnel “should not be placed in roles that put them in direct contact with the public since they do not possess the appropriate crowd control training and equipment.”
From the FOIA documents, it appears some of the only additional training many CBP agents received prior to the deployments was an hour-long online training covering § 1315 Law Enforcement Officer Designation, Jurisdiction and Mission, Police Powers, and Criminal Regulations. The training CBP officers received before being deployed to racial justice protests often was completed only a few days before deployment. This is concerning, especially considering the quasi-military nature of the teams deployed to racial justice protests, including BORTAC, BORSTAR, and SOG, and the Emergency Medical Program (EMP), which provides emergency medical services and training capabilities for the U.S. Border Patrol.
CBP used several weapons during racial justice protests that can cause significant, and irreversible, damage. Most of these weapons are known as “less lethal,” i.e., weapons that have a minor probability of causing death. However, when used with excessive force, these weapons are more likely to cause severe injury and death. In response to the racial justice protests, CBP used chemical weapons, such as tear gas, to control crowds. Despite CBP’s use-of-force policy attempting to restrain officers from harming members of the public, protestors were injured by federal law enforcement agencies while protesting.
The problems within CBP are systemic and its culture of overzealous enforcement is endemic. CBP training involves policing a militarized border. Given Border Patrol’s history of racist law enforcement, its role in policing protesters endangers civilians.
False Narratives Justifying CBP Deployments
The exact scale of CBP’s involvement in specific cities and their deployment procedures is obscured by omissions in the agency records released in response to our data request. The number of agents deployed during each of the protests is redacted, raising questions as to whether the disclosure of the number of agents would reveal an unnecessarily militarized response from CBP. For example, the Special Response Team (SRT) was requested on June 5, 2020, to support the Niagara Falls Emergency Response Team including local law enforcement during protests described as “civil unrest.” The SRT gathers advanced-trained agents assigned to dangerous or complex missions. However, the protests turned out to be entirely peaceful and involved only about 150 people. The number of SRT’s agents requested to be deployed is redacted.
While the Trump administration and CBP communications painted the protesters as “violent opportunists” and “rioters,” FOIA documents do not support this narrative. Though CBP often remarked on the “potential for violence” at various protests, it noted throughout its own reporting that protests were peaceful and smaller than expected.
Border Patrol’s Legacy of Racism Continues Today
CBP asserts it is one of the world’s largest law enforcement agencies and has generated controversy for its lack of transparency and repeated violations of civil and human rights, including unlawful killings. Research by the Council notes that a legacy of racial discrimination can be traced back to CBP’s component agency, the U.S. Border Patrol. The Border Patrol was created by Congress in 1924 to control migrant entry through the country’s ports of entry, in part at the urging of white supremacist groups. Many of the members of the Border Patrol came from organizations marked by violence and racism, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Texas Rangers. The Border Patrol later evolved into a heavily militarized federal law enforcement agency. In the early 1980s, because of its new role in the interception of drugs, the Border Patrol took steps such as increasing military helicopter capacity and creating the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, which was supposed to handle riots and emergency situations.
In the 1990s, the agency was given a general arrest authority, both on the federal and the state level, which led to additional racial discrimination in policing. Following the September 11th attacks, DHS was created to replace agencies including the former United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The Border Patrol was absorbed into a part of DHS—CBP—and acquired an additional function of counterterrorism. This additional function has become one of CBP’s main priorities.
CBP remains steeped in institutional racism. The summer of 2020 was not the first time CBP was present at racial justice protests. In 1992, for example, Border Patrol agents were part of the effort to put down the Los Angeles riots following the police beating of Rodney King. The agents deported hundreds from Latinx neighborhoods, despite no evidence that they were charged with riot-related offenses.
CBP’s vast resources make the agency especially dangerous. And there are no signs that CBP’s budget will be reined in anytime soon. The Biden administration has asked for almost $25 billion in funding for CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2024—an $800 million increase over 2023 funding levels. Given the power CBP holds, and its role in counterterrorism efforts, it is vital to provide a full accounting of CBP’s efforts to police protesters. The public should better understand the lengths to which CBP inserted itself in law enforcement efforts in cities throughout the United States during the summer of 2020 so members of the public are ready to respond to protests in the future.