By Wayne A. Cornelius
Earlier this week former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who also served as the nation’s first homeland security secretary, told radio host Michael Smerconish that “it’d be a cold day in hell” before would let uninvited federal agents into one of the state’s cities to take over policing of protesters.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what is happening in my city, Portland, Oregon.
The Trump administration’s unilateral deployment of an elite contingent of Border Patrol agents – part of BORTAC, a tactical SWAT team — to Portland for crowd control has seriously escalated the violence surrounding protests over racial injustice. A demonstration on Monday was the largest in more than 50 nights. Thousands of Portlanders, led by hundreds of moms and dads, were assaulted by federal agents.
Undoubtedly, this chaos was Trump’s plan, since using federal agents to “quell” protest movements fits beautifully into his reelection messaging, which lately has emphasized that “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
It is also part and parcel of Trump’s sustained effort to use immigration to divide the American people, conflate immigrants (and protesters) with crime, and serve as a wedge issue against Democratic candidates all down the ballot.
The president, alerted by Fox News to the menace of nightly protests in Portland, has surged BORTAC and other federal agents to the city over the vehement objections of its mayor, Ted Wheeler, Oregon Governor Kate Brown, and the state’s two U.S. Senators.
BORTAC agents, using unmarked “snatch vans,” have been hauling protesters off the streets purely to intimidate them – they were not charged or jailed. Other agents, operating on downtown streets, have been firing tear gas and “less lethal” impact munitions like pepper balls into crowds, pushing them far away from the federal property they are ostensibly protecting.
Using BORTAC in this way is a gross abuse of the Customs and Border Protection agency’s resources. But Homeland Security officials such as Ken Cuccinelli are almost giddy at the prospect of “taking Portland national,” which is exactly what the president has promised to do.
There is a larger context. For the last four years, Trump and his two Attorneys General have been waging war against sanctuary cities like Portland, pursuant to a hardline immigration policy. In February of this year BORTAC agents were deployed to ten major U.S. cities. The stated goal was to gin up immigration arrests in sanctuary jurisdictions, by at least 35 percent.
BORTAC units are trained to engage in armed confrontations with drug smugglers at our southern border. They have little or no training in interior immigration enforcement nor crowd control, which even Homeland Security officials have admitted internally.
This serious mismatch of personnel and mission almost certainly will increase human rights violations and make the general public less safe.
That’s because it will make undocumented immigrants (as well as legal immigrants in their families) more fearful of cooperating with local law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of crimes. From a public safety standpoint, the deployment is powerfully counter-productive.
But undocumented immigrants have gotten lost in the shuffle in Portland. The Trump administration is now using militarized tactics against overwhelmingly non-immigrant protesters. Immigrants themselves have been invisible in the nightly protests. The administration does not even attempt to justify the BORTAC deployment in terms of immigration enforcement.
The Trump administration is all for state and local rights — except when their exercise obstructs Trump initiatives, like indiscriminate immigration enforcement and reopening schools amid the pandemic.
It has sued state and local governments in California, New Jersey, and Washington State and issued punitive regulations against New York because of its decision to offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. All this is part of a strategy to achieve, by executive action, what the courts have refused to sanction.
The Trump-engineered escalation in street violence in Portland comes amid a huge explosion in Covid-19 infections. The chaos further complicates mitigation efforts. Already fearful undocumented immigrants, aware that hyper-aggressive immigration agents have come to town, will be discouraged from seeking Covid-19 testing and treatment.
Where does this end? Trump will lose interest in what is happening in Portland and move on to other venues and tactics. (Already, federal agents have been dispatched to Chicago to replicate the Portland operation.) A slew of lawsuits will be filed. But serious damage will have been done, to the rule of law, public trust in law enforcement, and to public health
Wayne A. Cornelius, a former Beaver County resident who now lives in Portland, Ore., is an emeritus Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego, where he specializes in in immigration policy.