Feds tap tactical border squads for racial-justice protests

Washington D.C.

WASHINGTON (AP) — They are the most highly trained members of the Border Patrol, agents who confront drug traffickers along the U.S.-Mexico border and track down dangerous fugitives in rugged terrain.

One day this past week, they were in a far different setting — a city park in Portland, Oregon, looking for two people suspected of throwing rocks and bottles at officers guarding the downtown federal courthouse.

In this July 24, 2020, file photo federal agents use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter demonstrators during a protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore. Beyond the debate over the federal response to protests in Portland, there is the question of whether the Department of Homeland Security, with its specialized national security focus, is the right agency for a job that is traditionally the responsibility local police. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Beyond the debate over whether the federal response to the Portland protests encroaches on local authority, another question arises: whether the Department of Homeland Security, with its specialized national security focus, is the right agency for the job.

It’s not just the Border Patrol Tactical Unit that has been called to duty in Portland. DHS has dispatched air marshals as well as the Customs and Border Protection Special Response Team and even members of the Coast Guard.

Graphic shows generic green military fatigues of federal agents in Portland, Oregon.;

“The Department of Homeland Security was never intended as a national police force let alone a presidential militia,” said Peter Vincent, a former general counsel for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is also an agency within DHS.

The deployment of DHS agents and officers is legal, both under existing law and an executive order President Donald Trump signed June 26 to protect federal property and monuments. But it has made the agency, created to improve the nation’s response to terrorism, a target of widespread criticism.

Congress plans to delve into the issue Friday, when the House Homeland Security Committee holds a hearing on the federal response to the protests in Portland and Trump’s announcement that he plans to send federal agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to help combat rising crime while making “law and order” a central theme of his reelection campaign.

In this July 21, 2020 file photo, a federal officer pushes back demonstrators at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

“Americans across the country are watching what the administration is doing in Portland with horror and revulsion and are wondering if their cities could be President Trump’s next targets,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who is chairman of the committee.

As of Monday, there were 114 federal agents and officers deployed to downtown Portland, according to an affidavit from Gabriel Russell, the regional director of the Federal Protective Service, the DHS component that provides security for federal buildings.

Protests have been taking place in Portland since May 26 but the federal agents kept a “defensive posture” by staying inside federal buildings until July 3, Russell said in the affidavit, filed in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking protections for journalists and other legal observers covering the demonstrations.

That night, according to Russell, protesters attempted to set fire to the federal courthouse and DHS deployed a Rapid Deployment Force as part of “Operation Diligent Valor.”

That same night, Trump stood before Mount Rushmore and accused protesters around the country who have pushed for racial justice of engaging in a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history.” He later criticized officials in Portland for allowing demonstrations to get “totally out of control.”

In this July 24, 2020, file photo federal officers advance on demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

The officers deploying to Portland are “highly trained,” and many wear camouflage because that’s their duty uniform on the southwest border, according to acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, responding to charges of a militarized response to the protests.

Many “highly trained” officers wear camouflage because that’s their duty uniform.

according to acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf

In addition to their previous training, they took a 90-minute online course on the mission and jurisdiction of the Federal Protective Service, police powers and criminal regulations, according to a course description provided to The Associated Press.

Richard Cline, principal deputy director of the protective services, told reporters that DHS officers are given additional training to ensure they act within guidelines established by the Justice Department as they assist an organization that was “quickly overwhelmed” by violent demonstrators.

In this July 24, 2020, file photo federal officers deploy chemical irritants on demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Wolf also defended tactics such as tear gas, rubber bullets and having officers sweep people off the street into unmarked vehicles, evoking images of a secret police force.

“We are only targeting and arresting those who have been identified as committing criminal acts, like any other law enforcement agency does across the country every single day of the week,” he said.

On Wednesday, agents from the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, known as BORTAC, set out from the federal courthouse just after midnight in pursuit of two people in dark clothing and carrying makeshift shields suspected of throwing rocks and bottles at officers, according to court records.

The agents struggled with the two, eventually restraining them and turning them over to the Federal Protective Service. One, a 19-year-old man, was charged with felony assault of an officer.

In addition to rocks and bottles, agents and officers at the courthouse have been struck with ball bearings, improvised explosives, fireworks, and balloons filled with paint and feces, Russell said. Some have also had lasers shined at their eyes.

At least 28 officers have been injured and officers have made at least 43 arrests, mostly for misdemeanors.

While the use of BORTAC officers in this environment is unusual, it’s not unprecedented, said Michael Fisher, a former senior official with the agency and member of the unit.

BORTAC officers have been used to serve warrants on suspects considered dangerous, protect emergency personnel during natural disasters, and they were sent to Los Angeles during the 1992 riots, Fisher said.

“What was happening in Portland is the police were not enforcing … the laws and it just escalated and that’s the reason it’s gone on well over 50 days now,” said Fisher, who now runs a security company.

In this July 24, 2020, file photo Federal officers use chemical irritants and projectiles to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters near the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

Local officials have in turn accused DHS of inflaming the situation, an argument bolstered by the fact that protests grew larger as controversy intensified over the tactics of the federal agents.

Former DHS officials concede the agency has worked with state and local law enforcement before, with the consent and cooperation of local authorities. But in Oregon, officials have asked the federal government to withdraw.

Vincent, who left ICE in 2014 and now works as a consultant, said some current officials are “extraordinarily uncomfortable” with what they have been asked to do in Portland.

“I am deeply concerned as someone who believes in the mission of the agency and knows and respects its officers and agents that these activities will irreparably damage the agency’s reputation,” he said.

___

Associated Press writer Ron Nixon contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

California Correspondent Latest Stories

More Salvador Rivera

El Paso Correspondent Latest Stories

More Julian Resendiz

South Texas Correspondent Latest Stories

More Sandra Sanchez

Washington D.C.

More Washington D.C.
borderlogo

About Border Report

The mission of BorderReport.com is to provide real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico. The information is gathered by experienced and trusted Nexstar Media Group journalists hired specifically to cover the border.