The Culture of Racism At El Paso Based Border Patrol & BORTAC

There are growing protests across America demanding that police departments be defunded. Other protestors are demanding that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) be abolished. Protestors in Portland protested outside the ICE building recently. ICE has drawn attention in recent years as the Trump Administration has intensified efforts to close the borders to immigrants.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was created in 2003 as part of the restructuring of America’s homeland security after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Prior to ICE, immigration services and immigration enforcement were two separate agencies. The customs service was the third agency. ICE now enforces the borders while it adjudicates immigration law, including processing immigration paperwork, and handles customs duties as well.

Although ICE abuse has existed for years, for the most part it was limited to the borders and their focus was on immigrants. As riots across the nation have intensified in recent years, Homeland Security has relied more, and more on ICE agents to quell violent outbreaks pitting ICE agents against American citizens. However, the specialize force of Border Patrol agents, created in 1984, has been used often in American cities in response to riots. Their deployment is not new. In addition, the inherent racism within the Border Patrol has existed for years. It is just now more visible.

Most Americans seem to believe that ICE suddenly appeared on the scene and that ICE abuse was suddenly new. It isn’t. The difference today is that Americans have started to pay attention to abusive law enforcement activities.

However, the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) making headlines today was not only used to quell prison violence since 1985, but it was publicly deployed to the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and criticized in the Elián González incident in 2000.

BORTAC Takes Elián González

BORTAC Member 3

On April 14, 2000, the Justice Department issued the order to take Elián González from the house in Miami where he was staying with his extended family. His great-uncle, Lazaro González had defied an immigration order to deliver the child to his father. As a result, the BORTAC team, out of El Paso, was deployed along with about 140 other agents to take Elián González out of the house in Miami. [2]

The iconic image of the raid to get Elián González has become the symbol of abusive immigration agents. The agent in the picture was a BORTAC team member. [1]

Almost immediately after the Border Patrol agents raided the González’ house, questions about their tactics were raised nationally. The government was forced to release after actions reports to curb the criticism. The after-action reports of the raid, released by the government on April 22, 2000 did not identify the BORTAC member in the picture. However, in the after-action reports, he is listed as BORTAC Team Member 3.

The BORTAC agent states, in the after-action report, that “while my weapon was being pointed in the general direction I was searching, I never purposely pointed my weapon at Elian Gonzalez or Mr. Dalrymple.” The after-action reports of the six members of the BORTAC, who participated in the raid, were compiled from briefings conducted on April 26 through April 29 at their headquarters in El Paso.

The Birth of BORTAC

The Border Patrol Tactical team (BORTAC) was created in August of 1984 “in response to a perceived increase in violence along U.S. borders, particularly the Mexican border,” according to Tom Waker (pronounced Walker), the Tucson Patrolman who organized the first team. [3]

In February 1985, DEA Agent Enrique Camarena was kidnapped and killed in México.

However, the CBP tells a different history of the creation of BORTAC. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, BORTAC was created “to serve a civil disturbance function in response to rioting at legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service detention facilities.” From there, the unit grew to include “high-risk warrant service; intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance,” and “rapid response capabilities.” [18]

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Creation Story Is Smoke And Mirrors

Today, the news media generally refers to the creation of the CBP tactical unit as a response to violence at immigration detention centers. That is how U.S. Customs and Border Protection likes to frame the creation of the unit. Officially, CBP says that the unit was created because of violence in detention centers. The El Paso Times reported the CBP creation story as such in July of this year. [17]

However, the unit was created to deal with what the Border Patrol labeled as rising violence along the border, not violence at immigration detention centers that the CBP wants readers to believe.

The First Unit

According to Wacker, 45 Border Patrol agents were initially accepted into the program in the first group. Wacker told the Arizona Republic that they were “shooting for a hundred-man unit.” [3] The training was conducted at the Army National Guard Camp Beauregard located in Alexandria Virginia. [3]

In the 1990’s training was moved to the 5th and 7th Special Forces Group. [4]

Secret Squad Training Exposed

The BORTAC team was created in secret. However, the team was exposed by a report by a CBS News report that showed pictures of agents training for the program. BORTAC was “secretly” training “to retaliate to protect Americans in case of violent political unrest or drug trafficking along the border.” [5]

The CBS News report reported that “critics of the border patrol call BORTAC an overreaction and that all but a few of the aliens along the border are not-violent.” CBS News added that the Border Patrol told the news outlet that “BORTAC would not be called in unless Americans are under attack.” [6]

Although initially created secretly, the BORTAC team was often in the news as they deployed to help quell violence in prisons from late 1985 onward. In 1988, the BORTAC team was again in the news as Congress investigated the deployment of 300 Border Patrol agents away from the border to help with prison security. Congress was investigating if the redeployment of border patrol agents left the border open to drug dealers, according to various news reports.

BORTAC and Border Patrol Deployed to Los Angeles

In May 1992, about 200 border patrol agents joined more than 1,000 federal officers and National Guard troops to help quell violence in Los Angeles. Among the border patrol agents were BORTAC members. [7]

The 1992 Los Angeles riots began in April after a trial acquitted four Los Angeles policemen of excessive force charges in the Rodney King incident.

BORTAC Today

Today, BORTAC is known as the Border Patrol Special Operations Group (SOG). It is composed of two units, the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) and the Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue (BORSTAR) team. Both units have a “robust support and intelligence” components. The unit “provides DHS, CBP, and the Border Patrol with specially trained and equipped tactical teams capable of rapid response to emergent or unusual law enforcement situations requiring special tactics and techniques, search, rescue, and medical response capabilities via land, air, and sea.” [8]

The two units were joined in 2007. This was according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection “Border Patrol Operations Group (SOG)” Final Fact Sheet number 14-27626.

As of January, of this year, the Border Patrol Tactical Unit has 259 members. ICE has another group called the Enforcement and Removal Operations Special Response Team consisting of 143 members. The special response team was established in 2004 “to address situations that require the use of resources beyond those of the typical enforcement officer to ensure a safe and successful resolution, such as executing high-risk warrants to suspects where the likelihood of armed resistance is high.” [9]

BORTAC Deployments in 2020

From fiscal years 2015 through 2019, the BORTAC deployed 683 times. Seventy-six percent of the deployments were on the southern border and nine percent were on the norther border. In April 2020, the New York BORTAC unit was deployed to the Buffalo, New York Detention facility “to monitor detention of COVID-19 exposed detainees.” The Miami field office unit was also deployed in April “for a disturbance and riot due to COVID-19 concerns, and again in May 2020 to the Broward Transition Center to provide additional security for a protest about releasing detainees who had COVID-19.”

Both the national and sector-level teams, including the El Paso team were deployed “with the reported purposes of assisting other law enforcement agencies with crowd control and tactical medical support.”

Additionally, the Field Operations Special Response Team deployed to several locations, including ports of entry, and the Federal Building in El Paso, Texas, among other locations. [10]

The ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations’ Special Response Team was deployed “to six cities in response to civil unrest and protests.” They were deployed to Buffalo, New York; Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Los Angeles, California; San Diego, California; and Washington, D.C. [10]

National Tactical Unit Not Constrained By Constitutional Limits

As far back as 2011, ICE leadership dreamed of wanting to develop the Border Patrol into the “marine corps of the US federal law enforcement community.” This is what David Aguilar, the then-CBP deputy commissioner, told the 100 or so ICE leadership at a hotel meeting in Irvington, Virginia. Another CBP official told the audience that “we are not cops,” and therefore they were not constrained by constitutional restraints. [11]

Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol Agent who spent six-years at the agency, calls BORTAC the “most violent and racist in all law enforcement.” [11]

BORTAC is headquartered at El Paso, Texas, where its “full-time members” reside. The team also has “non-full-time members dispersed throughout the United States.” The dispersed members “can be called upon to deploy immediately when needed.” [12]

BORTAC Program Cost and Effectiveness Unknown

A January 29, 2016 Department of Homeland Security, Inspector General report concluded that “CBP does not have formal performance measures for its SOG program and does not track SOG’s total program cost.” [13]

According to the OIG report, the Border Patrol SOG unit had a budget of $8.4 million for FY2014. However, the OIG found that the “SOG partial program costs” were about $33.6 million, instead. The report stated that “CBP does not maintain complete records” for the program. [13]

In September 2015, according to the OIG report, BORTAC had 220 active members and 51 in ready reserve. Another 75 members were listed as “inactive”. BORSTAR had an additional 387 members.

Congress Demands BORTAC Withdrawal

As the use of BORTAC to quell rising violence in cities in early 2020 made headlines, five members of Congress demanded answers from Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad F. Wolf and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner, Mark A. Morgan. On February 15, 2020, Jesus G. Garcia, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Nydia M. Velázquez sent a letter to them “to express significant concern about the Trump Administration’s deployment of a Special Forces-type tactical unit from the southern border to several cities across the United States.” Among the concerns by the congress people was the “arbitrary arrest benchmarks or quotas push by ICE agents to treat immigrant families like targets and numbers, instead of human beings.” CBP officials had set a goal of increasing arrests at the riots by “at least 35 percent.” The letter demanded that CBP “reverse course and immediately withdraw BORTAC” from America’s streets. [14]

A Racist Culture

The United States Border Patrol has a culture of racism built over years. “For years, the Border Patrol has quietly tolerated racist terminology.” Agents often referred to undocumented immigrants as “wets,” short for “wetback” and others used the term, “toncs.”

A former Border Patrol agent, Jenn Budd, told the New York Times that the term “tonc” derived from “the sound a flashlight makes when you hit a migrant in the head with it.” Another former agent, Josh Childress, succinctly explained the problem: “treating people as if they aren’t people is the problem.” [15]

On July 2019, a private Facebook group containing numerous offensive comments was revealed to be run by Border Patrol agents. The “I’m 10-15” Facebook group had about 9,500 members. Many were current ICE agents. Critics of the border agents said that the Facebook group posts were “further evidence that a culture of casual racism and misogyny was festering within the Border Patrol.”

ProPublica, who exposed the secret Facebook group, reported on August 5, 2020, that the promised investigations into the conduct of those who participated in the group remains mired in controversy. Customs and Border Patrol has refused to provide Congress a full accounting of the actions it has taken against participating members. [16]

Sources:

  1. Brian Dickerson, “Elian raid a study in precision, planning,” Detroit Free Press, May 1, 2000
  2. Karen De Young, “Agents tell how, why Elian raid was planned,” The Washington Post, via The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 29, 2000
  3. John Winters, “Crack team is formed to curb border violence,” The Arizona Republic, April 1, 1985
  4. Maj. Chanda Ian Mofu, “Army Support to the United States Border Patrol in the 21 st Century,” U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command Monograph, March 3, 2011
  5. “Border Patrol Secretly Training 100-Man Unit,” United Press International (UPI) via Alexandria Daily Town Talk, March 9, 1985
  6. “Border Patrol training commandos,” United Press International (UPI) via The Daily News Journal, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, March 9, 1985.
  7. Sebastian Rotella, “Border Patrol Agents Deployed to Unrest in L.A.,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1992
  8. “2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  9. GAO-20-710 Federal Tactical Teams
  10. “Federal Tactical Teams, Characteristics, Training, Deployments, and Inventory,” United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requestors, September 2020
  11. Ed Pilkington, “’These are his people’: inside the elite border patrol unit Trump sent to Portland,” The Guardian, July 27, 2020.
  12. “Border Patrol Tactical Unit,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Fact Sheet, December 2015
  13. “Group Program Cost and Effectiveness are Unknown,” Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General (OIG) Report, OIG-16-34, January 29, 2016
  14. Ayanna Pressley et al letter to Chad Wolf and Mark Morgan, February 15, 2020
  15. Manny Fernandez et al, “Border Patrol agents face hostility, moral crisis,” New York Times via The Wichita Eagle, September 16, 2019
  16. A.C. Thompson, “After a Year of Investigation, the Border Patrol Has Little to Say About Agents’ Misogynistic and Racist Facebook Group,” ProPublica, August 5, 2020
  17. Daniel Borunda, “El Paso Border Patrol teams among federal forces sent to protests in other cities,” July 23, 2020
  18. “Border Patrol Tactical Unit,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Fact Sheet, December 2015