At a time when it seems as though the Border Patrol’s powers are ever expanding, one limit has finally been put in place: Border Patrol agents no longer get free rein to visit airports and other commercial hubs.
It used to be that if a Border Patrol agent suspected drug smuggling or other illegal border activity, they could visit any airport, bus, or train station where the suspect might be. However, this past October, the Border Patrol implemented a policy that prevented agents from visiting commercial hubs unless they had “intelligence indicating a threat.” This policy began along the northern border of the United States, but has now been extended to some sectors along the southern border, including the El Paso sector, which includes part of western Texas.
Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement, which oversees the Border Patrol, state that this will allow the agency to use its resources more effectively. Local “field commanders” would analyze the intelligence to consider threats and risks and are send out to “mitigate these threats accordingly, using a variety of enforcement techniques.” One also senses that this system is in place to promote greater accountability. One spokesman stressed: “There has to be op orders drawn up. It has to be run up the chain of command, sometimes almost all the way up to D.C.”
Of course some don’t like the changes, particularly the National Border Patrol Council. The Council is a labor union that includes former Border Patrol agents. The Council complains that the latest policy is designed to “handcuff the effectiveness of Border Patrol agents” at performing searches and seizures. Because of “bureaucratic red tape,” Border Patrol agents cannot get authorization to operate in certain areas, giving criminals “a free pass to exploit these transit systems.”
Yet if you asked people at transit hubs in Texas, you might find that the new policy has made very little difference. Employees at a Greyhound bus terminal in Laerdo, Texas claimed that Border Patrol agents still regularly appeared. One passenger noted that they gave him a “bad feeling,” even though he was a citizen and otherwise law abiding.
Federal criminal defense attorneys near the U.S.-Mexico border are all too familiar with the Border Patrol’s excesses. Already, they seem to have a nearly unchecked power to pull over anyone to search for drugs or illegal immigrants. Federal agents and state police officers are supposed to have reasonable suspicion — that is, have specific factual reasons for believing a person has been or is about to engage in criminal activity — before stopping any car. However, too often, federal and state officials don’t bother to justify their actions to that extent, and too often, they get away with it. That is why it is refreshing to see the Border Patrol agency attempt to impose limits on what an agent is able to do. While the process might be slower, the extent of the slowdown for these types of situations is often exaggerated, and the good (less surveillance, more accountability) usually outweighs the bad.