What we do know about the US Customs and Border Protection—the federal agency that oversees our country’s international trade, immigration services, and the increasingly militarized Border Patrol—is worrying. We know that CBP has a long history of racial profiling, excessive use of force, and mass surveillance. We know that the agency has a budget of nearly $13 billion and, if President Trump has his way, will soon be infused with 5,000 new agents charged with fulfilling his anti-immigrant agenda.
But what we do not know about CBP is in many ways more frightening. We don’t know how many people the Border Patrol stops each year; how, why, and where Border Patrol operates its 100-plus interior checkpoints across the country; when agents engage in excessive use of force and what happens to them if they are caught doing so; or who, how, and with what technology the agency surveils in our country.
CBP’s budget is larger than the combined budgets of the FBI, DEA, and ATF; all told, it employs more than 62,000 agents and operates an entire fleet of planes, helicopters, and drones. The federal government spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other federal law-enforcement agencies combined. In the last 10 years, for both immigration and border enforcement (CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the government has spent approximately $170 billion. According to its own statistics, the Border Patrol interacts with around 27 million people a year, most of whom are US citizens, and yet they are also one of the least transparent federal agencies. As ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Lyall put it, “We don’t know very much about the Border Patrol, except that they are the most lawless, abusive, and unaccountable law enforcement agency in the country—we do know that.”
Garrett Graff, former editor of Politico and the author of the revelatory article “The Green Monster,” told me that after covering federal law-enforcement for a decade, he’d “never come across a federal law enforcement agency that is as difficult [as the Border Patrol] to get information out of.” He added: “We know shockingly little about how the [Border Patrol] works.”
As Donald Trump continues to make immigration and border security a central policy focus of his administration, the American public deserves to know how one of the largest law-enforcement agencies in the world operates. The standard methods of ensuring transparency have not worked with CBP: Its agents routinely employ tactics that would be unconstitutional if used by any other agency, and overall the agency is either brutally slow to process Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or fails to respond to them at all. The processes are not working—there needs to be another way of holding the agency accountable.