THE BLOG
11/20/2014 03:20 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

President Obama Is Poised to Empower an Unaccountable and Violent Agency

MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

Which American police force had an officer arrested for misconduct almost every single day between 2005 and 2012?

Hint: It's the same one that was responsible for at least 31 fatal encounters with private individuals since 2010, without a single instance of public accountability. It's also the one that claims authority to reduce Americans' constitutional rights within 100 miles of any external land or sea boundary.

No idea? The agency I'm talking about is Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

It's a little known fact that CBP is the largest law enforcement agency in the country, with more than 21,000 port-of-entry officers and 21,000 Border Patrol agents. What's becoming clearer all the time is that CBP is a police force in crisis. According to its former head of Internal Affairs, James F. Tomsheck, thousands of CBP personnel hired in the last decade's massive growth are "potentially unfit to carry a badge and gun." Furthermore, he says seven or more of CBP's shooting deaths are "highly suspect."

CBP's pattern of abuse and misconduct is exacerbated by an unprecedented militarization of our borders. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has called border spending -- on everything from drone surveillance to equipment intended for war zones -- a "mini industrial complex syndrome." In this context, the last thing I'd expect as a Las Cruces, New Mexico-based advocate for border communities is more enforcement resources.

But President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson are readying the country for another "surge" in border-security resources as part of the administration's welcome announcement of administrative relief for undocumented immigrants. Their plan isn't rooted in true border- security needs: The administration has regularly touted its tough enforcement record as producing the most secure border in American history. Nor was this summer's migration of families and children fleeing violence in Central America a border-security problem: CBP leadership correctly identified moms and kids turning themselves in as a humanitarian matter.

The president and his top officials seem to be accepting a mistaken perception of border communities. Rather than celebrating these communities' top-of-the-charts safety, economic vitality, and diversity, the administration has treated border residents as second-class citizens, suspects rather than people deserving equal respect and dignity.

President Obama's upcoming immigration announcement is an opportunity to ameliorate CBP's dismal six-year track record under his watch. He can bring CBP in line with best police practices using the agency's fresh leadership. He can stop the daily harassment of US citizens and lawful residents at interior CBP checkpoints, end racial profiling and brutal treatment meted out by CBP roving patrols far from any border, and eradicate abusive, demeaning behavior by some port-of-entry officers.

Border communities have long promoted an affirmative agenda to reform CBP through transparency and oversight reforms including body-worn cameras, reduction of the 100-mile zone, and improved complaint and custody policies. The president should not succumb to uninformed pressure about the border, but act with a vision to revitalize the militarized zone of heavy-handed law enforcement our communities have become. His pledge to bring humane enforcement to DHS operations won't be realized if he increases border-security resources at the height of CBP's problems.

As border residents, we're tired of being forsaken.

Please visit ACLU's webpage, Border Communities Under Siege