Mass CBP abuses are the travel ban story that’s not getting its due

Airports around the U.S. have been in chaos since last Friday, when the Trump administration without warning implemented a 90-day travel ban denying entry to nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated on Saturday and Sunday in cities as far-flung as Boise and Birmingham, and the eruption of outrage and grassroots energy has upended the political situation in Washington. Online, in print, and on television, the news has been dominated by coverage of the protests and political fallout for the past four days.

But there’s a dimension to the travel ban story that only becomes clear if you’re someone unfortunate enough to spend a lot of time on Twitter or otherwise inundated by news coverage, and that’s the full scope of the alarming actions taken by the Customs and Border Protection agency following the implementation of the order:

  • In the acts that have gotten the most attention thanks to their proximity to the D.C. press, CBP agents at Dulles have repeatedly defied U.S. congressmen and lawyers who were trying to enforce a court order allowing detainees access to legal counsel. One of the congressmen, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), called the situation “a constitutional crisis.”
  • Two U.S. congresswomen requested a meeting with CBP management at LAX regarding a student who was being deported to Iran in contravention of the stay granted Saturday night. CBP refused, and “[w]hen asked who they’re reporting to they said ‘Donald J. Trump.’”
  • Lawyers at JFK and elsewhere have reported that CBP agents are pressuring legal permanent residents, a.k.a. green-card holders, to sign away their legal status through threats and intimidation.
  • “Green card holders were handcuffed, their social media was reviewed, and they were asked their views on Trump.” The American Immigration Lawyers Association confirmed these reports to The Independent.
  • A Somali woman with her two children, both of whom are U.S. citizens, were detained for 20 hours without food. She was handcuffed “even when she went to the bathroom” and pressured to sign papers relinquishing her permanent resident status.
  • A 19-year old American citizen of Lebanese descent was detained for more than three hours at O’Hare, where CBP agents asked him, “Do you love your country?
  • An American citizen was interrogated in Houston, asked questions about his social media profiles and whether or not he was a Christian, and ultimately had his passport confiscated.
  • A 16-year-old Texas resident has been detained for more than three days despite the fact that he holds a valid visa and is a native of Jordan, which isn’t one of the countries included in the travel ban. His lawyer told the Houston Chronicle that after “speaking with colleagues across the country, he’s convinced immigration officials are not just barring or delaying citizens from the seven countries listed on Trump’s executive order.”
  • Today there were reports that U.S. Marshals were “refusing to enforce…court orders against CBP” at LAX.

There are scores of these stories floating across social media and being individually reported by various organizations, but it doesn’t seem like the clear and troubling pattern that developed over the weekend and has continued into today—i.e., flagrant and in many cases plainly racist abuses of power committed by CBP officers amid all the chaos and confusion—has been adequately identified and covered by major media outlets. Tracking and collating all these stories, doing due journalistic diligence on all their details, and synthesizing them into a coherent narrative is harder work than calling a congressman for comment or sticking a camera in front of a protest, but it may be no less important, if for no other reason than the fact that lingering confusion and ambiguity may enable CBP agents to commit further abuses.

The larger reason it’s important, though, is that at least for now, this is likely to serve as the model for Bannon & co.’s attempts to wield authoritarian power from their position in a federal government that’s not quite built for it. The executive branch, encumbered by its own bureaucracy and always under the watchful eye of the courts, is in many ways a poor vehicle for the kind of dangerous, oppressive ethnonationalism that many rightly fear from a Trump administration. But in law enforcement—whether CBP or ICE or the FBI or state and local police departments—Trumpism has a readymade vanguard already empowered by the state, already predisposed to ultraconservatism, and already in the habit of committing acts of extra- and pseudo-judicial violence and repression. What we saw happen with border security this weekend may well play out again, and soon, in inner cities, or with the undocumented, or voting rights, and so on, and we better be prepared to document and respond to it effectively.