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Border Patrol's Role In Policing Protests Remains Shrouded In Secrecy

A Border Patrol agent uses a computer in San Diego, Calif., June 5, 2014
Associated Press
A Border Patrol agent uses a computer in San Diego, Calif., June 5, 2014

While the National Guard is pulling out of San Diego this week, they haven’t been the only federal responders on the ground during local protests against police brutality.

The Border Patrol has also been on hand and promoting their involvement on social media.

Now lawmakers are wondering why, amidst a global pandemic, the Border Patrol is getting involved with local law enforcement and under what authority.

Border Patrol agents first provided support to local law enforcement at a protest on the evening of May 31st, as the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department fired tear gas and pepper balls from atop the county administration building at protesters at a vigil below.

While this might seem outside of their job description, Border Patrol told KPBS in a statement that “this deployment is about supporting the efforts of our federal, state and local partners, not about carrying out U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) immigration enforcement mission.”

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Video: Border Patrol's Role In Policing Protests Against Police Brutality Is Shrouded In Secrecy

After the vigil was cleared of protesters, Border Patrol agents posed on top of a memorial to George Floyd. The photo was then posted on social media by Border Patrol Sector Chief Aaron M. Heitke. It was deleted shortly after.

Border Patrol agents pose atop a vigil to George Floyd in a now-deleted tweet by San Diego Border Patrol Sector Chief Aaron M. Heitke, originally posted on June 1, 2020.
Screen grab via Twitter
Border Patrol agents pose atop a vigil to George Floyd in a now-deleted tweet by San Diego Border Patrol Sector Chief Aaron M. Heitke, originally posted on June 1, 2020.

Border Patrol said, “There was never any intention to offend, intimidate, or disparage peaceful protest or the memory of George Floyd.”

The photo itself raised a lot of questions about how exactly Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection are assisting local law enforcement during these protests.

“These agencies have long operated as black boxes,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, who has led several efforts to learn more about how Border Patrol operates. “One of the things that is being really crystallized for many people right now is how important it is for law enforcement to be meaningfully accountable to the public that they purportedly serve and how if they aren’t serious and lasting damage results.”

Asked specifically what its agents were doing at the protests, Border Patrol told KPBS, that “it would not be appropriate to disclose law enforcement operational specifics which could jeopardize operational security.”

Ebadolahi isn’t the only one asking questions.

California Senator Kamala Harris and San Diego Congressman Juan Vargas have sent a letter to the head of Customs and Border Protection, demanding “answers regarding what, precisely, your agencies will be doing and what policies and procedures are in place to protect the rights of individuals with whom you come into contact” during protests.

The letter asks for a response by this Friday.

‘You can’t be law enforcement and not be accountable like law enforcement,’ Ebadolahi said. “We have to make sure that they’re held to these same standards, that they don’t get a free pass, and that they aren’t able to define their law enforcement mandate as whatever they decide it should be.”

Border Patrol's Role In Policing Protests Remains Shrouded In Secrecy
Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.