Defund the Border Police:

Racial Justice and the American Border


Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Americans looking for a way forward in this national crisis are calling for prioritizing anti-racism, demilitarizing American society, and democratizing the political and legal system. To do so will require understanding which institutions are most in need of reform. My research on the American border suggests that border policy should be at the top of the list. As protestors challenge long-standing racialized and militarized institutions of American governance, they would do well to learn from and collaborate with border scholars and activists who have spent decades documenting and challenging these practices. 

To study border governance is to hold up a magnifying glass to the American experience: the double convex lens focuses the beams at a single point and flammable objects can catch fire. The racialization and militarization of U.S. society and policing is intense at the border, and today the border is almost literally everywhere. In legal terms, the ‘border zone’ defines the edge of the United States and runs 100 air miles inside; in terms of population, this makes it home to nearly 200 million people, or 65.3 percent of the U.S. population and about 75 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population. As Laila Lalami explains, “What formally counts as the border, according to the United States government, is not just the lines separating the United States from Canada and Mexico, but any American territory within 100 miles of the country’s perimeter, whether along land borders, ocean coasts or Great Lakes shores. That 100-mile strip of land encompasses almost entirely the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — along with the most populated parts of many others, including California and Illinois.” 

The ACLU describes the 100-mile area as a “Constitution-free” zone. Legal standards in this zone provide fewer protections against governmental abuse of power than almost anywhere else in the country: agents are permitted to enter private property, set up highway checkpoints, and enjoy wide discretion to stop, question, and detain individuals they suspect to have committed immigration violations. In an historical study of the border Greg Grandin confirms that, “Agent power was limited by no constitutional clause. There was no place patrollers couldn’t search, no property belonging to migrants they couldn’t seize.” Compounding the state of exception in the border zone, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is exempt from following the Fourth Amendment, and specifically its requirement for a warrant or probable cause. The U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are exempt from restrictions on racial profiling that apply to other federal departments. One DHS official told the New York Times, “We can’t do our job without taking ethnicity into account. We are very dependent on that.”

Racism has always been spoken through the languages of security, public order, and public health.

This statement reflects the long-standing institutionalization of white power and privilege in the U.S. Border Patrol since its founding in 1924 as part of the Immigration Act. Grandin describes the Border Patrol as dominated by white supremacists who “turned it into a vanguard of race vigilantism. Since its inception, he writes, the Border Patrol has been “a frontline instrument of white supremacist power.” These racialized dimensions of American border enforcement continue into the present. Reporting by Tanvi Misra features a map showing the minority share of the population within the 100-mile U.S. border zone. These populations endure constant racialized surveillance and policing, A 2015 report documents a pattern of profiling of people of color at Border Patrol interior checkpoints. The report by local humanitarian organization People Helping People In The Border Zone grew out of efforts by residents of Arivaca, a town in southern Arizona, to document border patrol’s interactions with locals. The study found that vehicles carrying Latinos were 26 times more likely to be asked for ID than those carrying white motorists, and twenty times more likely to be sent in for a secondary inspection. An understanding of border politics and policy focuses our attention like a laser on the need for anti-racist reforms across the gamut of American policing and security institutions. 

Such reforms become even more urgent when refracted through the prism of militarization. The myriad ways in which a permanently militarized and racialized post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy is coming home to roost is only beginning to be understood, in part through the reporting of journalists such as Ben Taub who won a Pulitzer for writing on these connections for The New Yorker. Taub shows how difficult it is for former soldiers to escape this violent logic. When U.S. soldiers formerly deployed in the Middle East are hired to police American cities upon their return it extends the logic of the Global War on Terror and its politics of race to the home front. The American government has had its knee on the neck of the people of the Middle East for decades; homegrown police violence is no surprise to those who have experienced American foreign policy in this region. It is not only tactics and strategy that are coming home but also surplus weapons that are being used to police American cities. As NPR reports, “at least 10 police departments in the Minneapolis and St. Paul suburbs have obtained either all or nearly all of their Department of Defense military-grade equipment — ranging from $13.56 cartridge magazines to hulking personnel carriers with original price tags surpassing $700,000 — during the first three and a half years of the Trump administration.” 

The racial politics of the Global War on Terror permeate American policing and security. Racism has always been spoken through the languages of security, public order, and public health. This can be seen in today’s “Countering Violent Extremism” initiatives, which bind together racism, notions of religious and civilizational superiority, and the “science” of counter-extremism to criminalize minority communities in the United States. Now called “Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP),” Congress authorized $10m to these programs for fiscal year 2021. While proponents defend CVE as a “kinder, gentler” version of U.S. post 9/11 counterterrorism policy, it is an expression of a larger pattern of racialized governance that should be abolished

The notion that individual and societal problems can be resolved through violence or the threat of violence has found a home not only in policing but also among armed white militias in the U.S., which was on vivid display in the “American Patriot Rally” in Michigan this spring and in the militarized responses to U.S. anti-racism demonstrations this summer. In mid-May, armed white militiamen entered the Michigan statehouse in Lansing to call for “freedom” in protest of a stay-at-home order issued by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Heavily armed protestors waved signs comparing Governor Whitmer to Adolf Hitler, showing nooses and Confederate flags. Signs read “No Work No Freedom” and “Tyrants Get the Rope.” Several armed demonstrators entered the Senate gallery and stood above lawmakers, at least one of whom donned a bulletproof vest. Protest organizer Ryan Kelley said he invited the Michigan Liberty Militia, which is listed as an anti-government group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to serve as “security” for the event. President Trump called the protesters “very good people” and urged Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer to “make a deal.” Democratic congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who represents Michigan’s 13th congressional district, condemned the demonstrations at the state Capitol, noting the double standard that “Black people get executed by police for just existing, while white people dressed like militia members carrying assault weapons are allowed to threaten State Legislators and staff.” 

The American government has had its knee on the neck of the people of the Middle East for decades; homegrown police violence is no surprise to those who have experienced American foreign policy in this region.

Only a few weeks later, largely peaceful protests around the country incited by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis combined with built-up frustration resulting from centuries of institutionalized and state-sanctioned racism were met with statements from local and federal officials describing the protestors as terrorists and extremists and calling for a militarized response. During a White House call with governors in early June, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said: “I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal.” President Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which allows him to order active-duty troops into cities across the United States, effectively declaring war on the American people. As the Times reports, during the unrest in early June “tens of thousands of rifle and pistol rounds were stores in the D.C. Armory and partitioned in pallets, labeled by their state of origin, to be used on American citizens in case of emergency.” Trump even enjoyed the support of some U.S. lawmakers, including the junior U.S. Senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton, whose New York Times opinion piece supporting a militarized response to the anti-racism protests led to the resignation of Times Opinion Editor James Bennett. The glaring discrepancy in official accounts of the anti-shelter-in-place protest and anti-racism protests, with the former described as “protestors calling for freedom” and the latter as “extremists” requiring the government to “dominate the battlespace,” distorts the conversation and makes militarization seem normal if not inevitable. Governor Whitmer was asked on National Public Radio whether she had perhaps taken the stay at home order “too far,” while in the meantime, the National Guard occupied Washington, D.C., with the backing of the U.S. Army, to face down American citizens calling for racial justice. 

The militarization of American life and its entanglements with white supremacy comes as no surprise to Americans who have been paying attention to the U.S. border. The numbers speak for themselves: combining CBP and ICE, U.S. annual budgets for immigration and border enforcement have grown almost eighty-fold since 1978, for a total of approximately $23 billion in 2018. As of 2016, according to Greg Grandin, the U.S. was spending more on border and immigration enforcement than on all other federal law-enforcement agencies combined. Border enforcement is increasingly globalized or “externalized,” meaning that U.S. border regimes are part of a network of enforcement regimes around the world. It was only a matter of time before this web of security regimes was brought to bear against American citizens at home; during recent anti-racism protests, ICE and CBP were among the agencies quietly mobilized to patrol the streets of Washington, D.C. 

Some Americans are fighting back. In response to Trump’s threat to deploy the military to crush protests against police brutality and structural racism, ACLU National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi countered that “deploying more federal troops to suppress dissent would be irresponsible and dangerous. No level-headed governor is asking for an even more militarized response to civilian protests against police brutality and systemic racism — for good reason. There are already many reports of civilian police and some state National Guard forces engaging in serious abuses, and the deployment of military personnel, who are generally not trained for civilian law enforcement, only escalates the risks. This president must not cause the country and its people even more harm.” Racialized and militarized structures and habits of American governance are being challenged in the streets in the U.S. and overseas. To listen carefully to the protestors is to catch a promising glimpse of alternative visions of solidarity and community. ♦

The author would like to thank Noah Salomon and Gina Giliberti for reading earlier versions of this post, Nadia Marzouki for co-organizing the “Contextualizing Radicalization” network, and Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou for hosting the webinar “Racialising Security: From Post-9/11 to Post-Corona.”


Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is Professor of Politics and Religious Studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (2008) and Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (2015) both published by Princeton University Press.