For a few days in Portland, Oregon, this month, it wasn’t clear who was abducting protesters and journalists. The heavily armed men rushing out of unmarked vans and grabbing people off the sidewalks wore army fatigues and bulletproof vests. They looked like U.S. soldiers, but, then again, they also looked like the far-right militia members who have appeared at many protests in recent years. Information was murky and chaotic. Some of the protesters who were picked up claimed that, even after they were released, they were unsure of why they had been arrested, or who had arrested them. Eventually, it became clear that it was neither troops nor militias: The armed men were federal agents, namely Customs and Border Protection (CBP), sent by the Trump administration to clash with protesters in Portland.
The situation in Portland has rightly shocked politicians, journalists, and legal experts across the country. Many have called the situation unprecedented. But that’s not quite true. While what’s happening in Oregon is certainly pivotal and disturbing it’s not without precedent. The sort of ambiguous federal arrest happening on Portland streets have happened for decades in this country—just not primarily to white U.S. citizens.
The arrest of the two Migrant Justice organizers in March 2018 bears a striking resemblance to the arrests in Portland. Like the protesters, two labor activists, Jose Enrique Balcazar-Sanchez and Zully Palacios, were driving home when they were pulled over, surrounded, and arrested by federal agents in unmarked cars. Balcazar-Sanchez and Palacios eventually learned the plainsclothes agents detaining them were with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but at the moment they were arrested, they had no idea what was happening.
“They didn’t identify themselves; they didn’t tell us why we were being detained,” Balcazar-Sanchez told me in 2018 (along with Palacios, Balcazar-Sanchez works in the leadership of Migrant Justice, a group that helps organize and empower exploited dairy workers in Vermont). “I know my rights, unless you have an arrest warrant, you can’t arrest me.”
Those rights didn’t protect him. The two activists were detained, their hands and feet shackled. Despite Balcazar-Sanchez and Palacios asking the men over and over again who they were, and where they were being taken, none of the men answered their questions. They spoke to them in mocking tones. “We’ve got you Kike [Kee-Keh],” one of the men told Balcazar, using a nickname only Balcazar-Sanchez’s friends and family used. They also called Palacios a nickname she only used with close family. It was clear intimidation.
What happened to Balcazar-Sanchez and Palacios occurred more than two years before the federal arrests in Portland but gained little attention outside of Vermont, for a simple reason: The two activists are undocumented.
For decades, federal agents, like the ICE agents who arrested Balcazar-Sanchez and Palacios, have arrested millions in the sorts of “secret police” action demanding national attention in Portland. People being arrested by ICE are routinely not given the details or justification for their arrest, and ICE agents often dress in plain clothes or wear uniforms that identify them as “police,” but not federal agents. When they make arrests, ICE agents are not required to read people their Miranda rights or provide them with lawyers. Arrests also often happen suddenly and without warning: Children have come home to find their parents disappeared.
These kinds of actions would provoke outrage—as well as clear constitutional lawsuits—if carried out against white U.S. citizens. However, many Americans have seemed largely willing to accept that marginalized groups, including non-citizens, are not entitled to the same human rights they enjoy.
To acknowledge that what’s happening to people in Portland has happened to millions of people in the U.S. before does not mean denying the immense importance and political danger of what’s happening in Oregon. In fact, it means quite the opposite: Tracing back how the U.S. has routinely arrested and disappeared non-citizens is vital to understanding and responding to this decisive moment in this country’s history.
For one thing, the agencies at play seem to be the same: In Portland, agents from CBP’s militarized wing, BORTAC, have been the federal forces most visible in Portland streets. CBP agents are the ones in the gas masks and fatigues, lobbing tear gas into crowds of veterans and moms.
But Portland wasn’t the first time CBP has tear gassed mothers, even in the last couple years. In 2018, during the arrival of two prominent Central American “caravans” in Tijuana, Mexico, CBP agents lobbed tear gas into a group of asylum seekers that included many mothers and young children. Some of the most shocking images from that day showed Maria Mesa Castro, a mother of toddlers, trying to rescue her children from the gas. Two weeks after that day in Tijuana, I met mothers and children who still had hacking coughs. Many of them attributed it to the gas.
All across the borderlands, CBP has long had perhaps the most unchecked reign of any law enforcement agency. Various bills and judicial decisions have determined that people in the borderlands—which CBP defines as a 100-mile stretch from every border and coast—do not have the same legal protections and liberties as other citizens. In ports of entry, CBP agents don’t need a warrant, or even reasonable suspicion, to conduct searches of vehicles, bags, and persons.
Some of the most shocking rights abuses in the U.S. occur in CBP detention centers. Children and families are regularly detained without charge—indeed, the first step to anyone exercising their legal right to request asylum in the U.S. is inevitably detention. Every day, asylum-seekers who did everything “right”—who crossed the border legally and presented themselves for asylum—are placed in CBP detention. In these bare-bones detention centers, individuals and families routinely go days and even weeks without showers and toothbrushes, often forced to sleep on concrete services in the freezing cold or suffocating heat. Afterwards, asylum-seekers are transported to ICE detention, where some of them have remained locked for years at a time, without a single criminal or civil charge against them, as they await a final asylum ruling.
All these things happening today are connected. All the way back in the 1980s, BORTAC was created to suppress riots in immigration detention centers. Now, that same unit is shooting tear gas and stun grenades into crowds Black Lives Matter protesters, mothers, progressive protesters, and other people who have dared to take to the streets to oppose state violence.
We should also remember that this kind of “secret police” action has happened to citizens before. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, over 700 Muslim men—many of them born the US—were rounded up in by police in cities across the country. In jail, many of the men were subjected to arbitrary strip searches and solitary confinement. In 2015, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals wrote a majority opinion that in part acknowledged “the suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11.”
The rights of non-citizens, religious minorities, and other marginalized people are the canary in the coal mine for us all. In her analysis of how the Nazi’s came to power, the social theorist Hannah Arendt analyzed how refugee camps and stateless people in Germany gave the State the opportunity to strip people of all the most basic rights afforded to citizens, on the pretext of stateless peoples’ foreigness. Across Germany in the 1930s, stateless people were placed in the country’s first round of concentration camps, the precursors to the Nazi death camps. For Arendt, this was the moment that the status of human rights began eroding precipitously in the nation of her birth. The human rights protections a society creates are only as rigorous as their protection of the most vulnerable—those without the protections of nationality or citizenship. Today, white U.S. citizens are faced with the stark reality of how far the most bare status of human rights has eroded in this country—a reality that immigrants, Muslims, Black people, Indigenous people, and other marginalized people have warned about for decades. Now that CBP and ICE have, seemingly overnight, been tasked with policing citizens, many of us have experienced a similar revelation to the one Martin Niemöller expressed in 1946. First they came for the immigrants; now they’re coming for us all.