[Note for TomDispatch Readers: TD regular Todd Miller is back with another hair-raising tale from America's borderlands and since it focuses on our increasingly un-Constitutional governance, I decided to ask State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, now embarked on a series of TD pieces about the tearing up of the Bill of Rights, to do the introduction. Please note that a signed, personalized copy of Miller's superb new book, Border Patrol Nation, is still available at the TomDispatch donation page for a $100 contribution, as are Anand Gopal's widely praised book on the Afghan war and books by Nick Turse and myself. Don't forget that your donations really do keep this website above the waves in rugged times! Tom]
You're not in the United States. Oh sure, look around at the fog lifting over the New England countryside or the diamond deserts of Arizona, but this land isn't your land, not anymore. It's a place controlled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and your constitutional rights do not apply on their territory. CBP can, and does, detain Americans, search them without warrant, and physically mistreat them in what has become, for our 9/11 sins, a Post-Constitutional legal purgatory. You are neither outside their grasp in a foreign land, nor protected from them by being inside America.
The concept that the Constitution does not apply at America's borders is not new, particularly in relation to Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure. (In this context, "seizure" often takes the form of detention, as well as the more traditional concept of taking physical possessions away.) Once upon a time, the idea was that the United States should be able to protect itself by examining people entering the country. Thus, routine border seizures and searches without warrants are constitutionally "reasonable." Fair enough. The basic rules, in fact, go back to 1789.
But the fairness of the old rules no longer applies, particularly in the face of a constantly metastasizing CBP, anxious to expand its place in the already expansive Homeland Security ecosystem. On its website, CBP boasts of making 1,100 arrests a day as, in its own words, the "guardians" of America. Do the math: that's 401,500 a year, and those arrests are not limited to dangerous foreigners. Americans who hold certain beliefs and affiliations are swept up as well, whether they are prominent journalists, activists, or simply (as in today's piece) angry spouses of men beaten nearly to death by CBP agents. The agency now insists that its jurisdiction does not end at the physical border, the line on the map that separates say the United States from Mexico, but extends 100 miles inland.
Building on his successful new book, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, TomDispatch regular Todd Miller brings us more examples of CBP lawlessness and brutality, while asking crucial questions about its larger meaning to our nation. Get ready to be scared. If you live near the border, cross the border after a trip abroad, or attract the attention of roving CBP patrols in New England or Arizona within 100 miles of the line, this land belongs not to you and me, but in Post-Constitutional America, increasingly to our so-called guardians. Peter Van Buren
Border Wars in the Homeland "Stop Stepping on the Pictures" By Todd Miller
Shena Gutierrez was already cuffed and in an inspection room in Nogales, Arizona, when the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent grabbed her purse, opened it, and dumped its contents onto the floor right in front of her. There couldn't be a sharper image of the Bill of Rights rollback we are experiencing in the U.S. borderlands in the post-9/11 era.
Tumbling out of that purse came Gutierrez's life: photos of her kids, business cards, credit cards, and other papers, all now open to the official scrutiny of the Department of Homeland Security. There were also photographs of her husband, Jose Gutierrez Guzman, whom CBP agents beat so badly in 2011 that he suffered permanent brain damage. The supervisory agent, whose name badge on his blue uniform read "Gomez," now began to trample on her life, quite literally, with his black boots.
"Please stop stepping on the pictures," Shena asked him.
A U.S. citizen, unlike her husband, she had been returning from a 48-hour vigil against Border Patrol violence in Mexico and was wearing a shirt that said "Stop Border Patrol Brutality" when she was aggressively questioned and cuffed at the CBP's "port of entry" in Nogales on that hot day in May. She had no doubt that Gomez was stepping all over the contents of her purse in response to her shirt, the evidence of her activism.
Perhaps what bothered Gomez was the photo silkscreened onto that shirt -- of her husband during his hospitalization. It showed the aftermath of a beating he received from CBP agents. His head had a partially caved-in look because doctors had removed part of his skull. Over his chest and arms were bruises from Tasering. One tooth was out of place, and he had two black eyes. Although you couldn't see them in the photo, two heavily armed Homeland Security agents were then guarding his hospital door to prevent the father of two, formerly a sound technician and the lead singer of a popular band in Los Angeles, from escaping -- even in his comatose state.
Jose Gutierrez Guzman's has become an ever more common story in an American age of mass expulsions. Although he had grown up in the United States (without papers), he was born in Mexico. After receiving a letter requesting his appearance, he went to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Los Angeles and was promptly arrested and deported. Customs and Border Protection agents later caught him crossing the border in San Luis, Arizona, near Yuma, in an attempt to reunite with his wife and children.
"Stop... stepping... on... the... pictures," Shena insisted.
As she tells the story, Agent Gomez looked at her shirt for a second, then looked up at her and said, "You have that mentality about us. You think we go around abusing." His tone remained faux-friendly, but his boots didn't -- and neither did those cuffs another CBP agent had put on her. Forcing her hands behind her back, they cut uncomfortably into her wrists. They would leave deep red circular marks.
On display was a post-9/11 world in which the usual rights meant to protect Americans from unreasonable search and seizure and unwanted, as well as unwarranted, interrogation were up for grabs.