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Elite ‘BORTAC’ unit to join sanctuary city crackdown

In a continuation of its crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities and states, the Trump administration is planning to use U.S. Border Patrol agents from an elite tactical unit known as "BORTAC" to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement in detaining undocumented immigrants. New York Times national immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson joins Hari Sreenivasan for more on the escalation.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In a continuation of its crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities and states, The New York Times reports the Trump administration is planning to use agents from an elite tactical unit known as BORTAC to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Joining us now for more on this Border Patrol SWAT team and the sanctuary issue is Caitlin Dickerson, the national immigration reporter for The New York Times. So what is BORTAC, first of all?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    So BORTAC, as you said, it's an elite portion of the Border Patrol. They really act like a SWAT team. There are people who are chosen from individual border patrol units. They undergo specific training. It's similar to Army Rangers or to Special Forces. They're Sniper certified, they have grenades, they're called flashbangs, that can obscure what you can see when they break into your home. You know, they carry large weapons. So they're very much a militaristic squad from within the Border Patrol.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What do they usually do compared to what they're about to do?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    Typically, they're deployed both within the United States and internationally on these very high stakes and high risk busts. So most famously, Americans will remember it was BORTAC agents who broke into the home where Elián Gonzalez was being held in the year 2000. The young boy who was embroiled in an international asylum scandal, really. And you saw a BORTAC agent with a big guns sort of seize the boy from his uncle. But they also, you know, now more commonly, they're breaking into stash houses that smuggling organizations are running. So these are places that are known to be full of drugs and weapons and dangerous people and they're breaking down the door to get them out.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So the optics of Elian Gonzalez were, well, depending on what side of the political persuasion we were, were, you know, very different and not so great. Does ICE know about that? Are they conscious of the optics of highly militarized stuff going and doing what would be otherwise normal ICE arrests?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    Absolutely. I mean, I've covered this beat preceding this administration, predating this administration, and objects is always a consideration when it comes to immigration or really any seat, any policy decision. So, yes, I mean, immigrants, undocumented immigrants are on high alert at this point. They know exactly what ICE agents wear. And they're going to notice when they see people wearing not a typical ICE uniform, but a SWAT type uniform outside their home, if that's the way that the BORTAC officers are dressed when they go out on this operation.

    And again, something that I've seen over time is that there's immigration enforcement through arrests. But governments know, and not just this administration, that there's also enforcement through fear. It is a strategy. I mean, the hope of those who've chosen to employ it, and we're seeing it here, is that you continue to make this country less hospitable to people who are not here with legal status. And the goal there is if not to get them to leave on their own to at least discourage others from following behind them. So that's absolutely a consideration here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now, this is just the latest in a series of kind of engagements the Department of Justice, the president, etc. has been taking against these so-called sanctuary cities. Just this week, William Barr said that we are going to escalate.

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    Right.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So this is one of those escalations. And we also had, what was it, a meeting between Andrew Cuomo and President Trump?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    Right. This is the continuation of a battle that began in January of twenty seventeen when President Trump took office. Even earlier in 2016, I mean, he campaigned on the idea of cracking down on sanctuary jurisdictions. And you've seen the battle ebb and flow a little bit. A lot of it has come out of the Justice Department. And as we know, they've been a little busy. But. But we're in an election year. And so we are seeing an escalation and the administration is being open about that. They've filed subpoenas in New York to get access to information about immigrants who are being held in criminal custody, who immigration officials knew were not going to be handed over. So they're trying to figure out ways to get around these policies that block police from working with immigration authorities.

    Just this week, the administration filed lawsuits again against local governments in Washington state, in New Jersey. So they're trying a bunch of different tactics at the moment. You know, global entry being, I think the one that is has been most surprising to people perhaps up until this story we're talking about now, because this is something that affects New Yorkers, not just immigrants, but native born Americans, native born New Yorkers, who are now going to be blocked from from enrolling in this global entry program through DHS. So they're getting creative in finding ways to really crack down and try to counteract these sanctuary policies.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So is the city of San Francisco or Atlanta or Houston or Chicago or New York, are they planning to take any steps to try to figure this out? I mean, because this is a federal jurisdiction, the government has the right to put these agents into place. These are already police departments that are not cooperating with the federal government. So what happens here if you have possibly ICE agents surrounded by what looks like a SWAT team coming into a residential neighborhood to try to pick somebody up?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    Our reporting has shown that this is within the authority of the federal government. I think what we've seen up until this point is that when when local mayors get involved and they don't like the enforcement tactics of the administration, they make a real effort to let people know, so that they don't come outside.

    And it's important to point out in this case, you know, we talked about all those capabilities that the BORTAC agents have, but a lot of them they won't be able to use because unlike their typical work in this case, they're enforcing civil immigration infractions. So that means they don't have the legal ability to break into someone's home or force their way into their place of work to try to arrest them. They're still very much going to be limited. And so local governments and mayors of places like San Francisco and also immigrant advocacy groups have gone a long way to try to educate the undocumented about their rights as a way to try to diminish the success of an operation like this one.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And is there a timeline or a goal associated with this kind of escalation?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    This particular operation is planned for three months. And a lot of times the arrests happen on weekends. You know, they happen in the middle of the night. They happen early in the morning. And I think what I can expect is that they're going to assess how it goes. It could go shorter. It could go longer. I mean, it's a real question, again, how successful this is going to be, because the undocumented communities across the country are so much on alert.

    But I can guarantee that, you know, when the operation ends, I'm going to get a press release pointing out, you know, look at this person who has a violent criminal record who we arrested, that person who's been deported many times, who we arrested. The thing that we want to pay attention to as well as reporters, are the collateral arrests, which are becoming more and more common. So that's where essentially someone's in the wrong place at the wrong time, right? These ICE agents are targeting people who they believe to be criminals, who they believe to be important targets for deportation. But if you're in someone's house, when they're being arrested or you're at their place of work, when they're being arrested, you could also be swept up in the enforcement net. And that will absolutely be the case with this operation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Caitlin Dickerson, of The New York Times, thanks so much.

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    Thank you.

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