Unconstitutional Border Wars Have Moved Into the Heartland
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Shena Gutierrez was already cuffed and in an inspection room in Nogales, Arizona, when the Customs and Border Protection agent grabbed her purse, opened it, and dumped its contents onto the floor.
Tumbling out of that purse came Gutierrez’s life: photos of her kids, business cards, credit cards, and other papers, all 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, literally, with his black boots.
“Please stop stepping on the pictures,” Gutierrez 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 the 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 grew 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 Gutierrez 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, leaving deep red circular marks.
The usual rights meant to protect Americans from unreasonable search and seizure and unwanted, as well as unwarranted, interrogation are up for grabs. While such constitutionally questionable intrusions into people’s privacy have been increasing at border crossings in the post-9/11 years, this type of hardline border policing has also moved inland. In other words, the sort of intrusions that once would have qualified as unconstitutional have moved in startling numbers into the interior of the country.
Imagine the once thin borderline of the American past as an ever-thickening band, now extending 100 miles inland around the United States—along the 2,000-mile southern border, the 4,000-mile northern border, and both coasts—and you will be able to visualize how vast the CBP’s jurisdiction has become. This “border” region now covers places where two-thirds of the U.S. population (197.4 million people) live. The ACLU has come to call it a “ constitution-free zone.” The “border” has by now devoured the full states of Maine and Florida and much of Michigan.