By Josh Leach on July 21, 2020
The news in recent days has brought us startling images of the unchecked abuse of presidential power. Unidentified federal agents have reportedly pulled people off the streets of Portland, OR, without cause and forced them into unmarked vans. Handheld videos have captured images of men in camouflage and riot gear beating and tear-gassing unarmed protesters without provocation. Protestors have been detained without being told the charges against them.
Faced with these displays of arbitrary force from federal agencies pledged to uphold the Constitution, some observers are not surprised: Immigrant advocates say that this is what has been happening to their communities for years—as well as to Black, Muslim, and Indigenous communities.
The latest headline-grabbing abuses have been committed by a patchwork of federal agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as well as the U.S. Marshals. Both agencies were instrumental in implementing the Trump administration’s so-called “zero tolerance” policy, which caused the family separation crisis in the summer of 2018. In other words, the same agents who were tasked with taking children from refugee parents two years ago are now kidnapping citizens on the streets of a major U.S. city.
For decades, immigrant advocates have warned against the dangerous rise of an immigration enforcement force—housed under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—operating without meaningful checks on its authority. The result has been the creation of a vast apparatus for incarcerating immigrants in administrative detention where, since they are not charged with a crime, they have almost no access to the protections of judicial due process.
Within this system, CBP commits human rights violations with near-total impunity. U.S. border agents have been responsible for nearly 100 fatal encounters in the past 15 years, few of which result in any disciplinary consequences. In one incident that took place in 2018, a Border Patrol agent shot and killed Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez, a 20-year-old Indigenous woman from Guatemala who was unarmed and posed no threat to the agent. This is the agency that the President has now deployed against unarmed U.S. citizens in Portland, threatening a repeat performance in a half-dozen other cities “all run by liberal Democrats”—overtly tying this executive abuse of power to partisan politics.
It is up to our elected leaders to take the strongest possible stand against this dangerous attack on our democracy and our civil rights. Leaders in the House of Representatives have already signaled support for making steep cuts to the CBP and detention line items in the next DHS annual spending bill. They should now take the additional step of conditioning all further funding on the immediate halt to the use of federal agents to criminalize protest in our cities.
For years, immigrant activists have been saying that the violations of migrant rights are the “canaries in the coalmine,” anticipating the erosion of the rights of all Americans. For years, Black activists have pointed to the ways their communities are criminalized by police: local, state, and federal. What’s happening now in Portland is the logical extension of long-existing abuses. When we tolerate the expansion of government power, allowing it to trample on the rights of immigrants, Muslims, and Black and Indigenous people, the inevitable result is not only grave injustice against some of us, but a steady loss of legal protections for all of us. We are witnessing the consequences of this failure of vigilance in the streets of Portland today.
About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!
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