The involvement of DHS in surveilling and detaining protesters in Portland lays bare how the federal immigration regime and local policing have become increasingly entangled. During the recent marches against anti-black violence, local police within and beyond the 100-mile border zone received assistance from DHS through the deployment of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drones and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to monitor nationwide demonstrations.
This matters. Historically, partnerships between local police and federal immigration authorities have made possible the surveillance and arrests of noncitizens and U.S. citizens presumed “alien” during extraordinary moments and manufactured narratives of crisis. These collaborations have contributed to the simultaneous expansion of the carceral state and deportation regime. And now, these expanded surveillance and policing capabilities are not only targeting and constraining the lives of immigrants, but U.S. citizens increasingly caught in the immigration dragnet — such as those who were forcibly detained into unmarked vehicles in Portland.
The history of policing immigrants and U.S. citizens assumed to be foreign-born or accused of engaging in activities unfavorable to the government goes back nearly a century. In the years after the 1929 stock market crash, the United States entered a historic recession that saw record unemployment and widespread food insecurity. Politicians, journalists and members of the American public scapegoated Mexicans as the reason for the employment crisis, because of the concentration of Mexican and Mexican American workers in agriculture, one of the hardest-hit sectors.
In conjunction with county welfare officials and local law enforcement, immigration authorities decided to deport hundreds of thousands of Mexicans as a “solution” to the national crisis — often without respect for citizenship status, age, familial integrity or rights to due process. In short, people were targeted on the basis of race and ethnicity. To identify, track and apprehend migrants, the Immigration Service surveilled labor strikes that involved foreign-born workers, while welfare and labor officials entertained proposals that would have fingerprinted migrant workers with and without U.S. citizenship as they moved with their children.
The raids ended up separating families and deporting or repatriating an estimated 1 million Mexicans — about 60 percent of whom were U.S.-born citizens.
In the mid-1950s, the Border Patrol tackled another “crisis” of migration with a mass deportation campaign. Legal immigration of Mexican workers in this period was largely limited by the terms of the temporary guest worker Bracero program. But farmers were unwilling to comply with wage and labor regulations and the bureaucratically cumbersome and costly nature of formal Bracero recruitment. So they continued recruiting undocumented immigrants from border areas willing to work for low wages.
In Mexican border towns and Southwestern U.S. cities, the Border Patrol enlisted informants to infiltrate smuggling networks and gain intelligence about immigrants seeking unauthorized entry into the United States. Immigration officials also offered local police officers in Texas border cities $1 to $2 bounties for every Mexican woman and child they apprehended and transferred to Border Patrol offices.
The end of the Bracero program in 1964 and the 1965 Hart-Celler immigration reform didn’t stop these practices.
In fact, the federal government soon expanded its surveillance capabilities — this time with data collection technologies. In 1969, the government created a centralized databank called the Migrant Student Record Transfer System (MSRTS). The database recorded the names, addresses, birth dates, birthplaces and migration patterns of predominantly Mexican children and parents with and without U.S. citizenship. It tracked migrant students who moved between districts with their farmworking parents during the school year, purportedly to enhance their education.
But this data collection occurred within the context of heightened anti-immigrant nativism, the expulsion of noncitizen youths from public schools, the scapegoating of migrants for straining the welfare system and burgeoning mass incarceration.
When local migrants’ rights advocates accused state officials of using the MSRTS to “track down” migrant Mexican children and their families, education authorities publicly stated that the MSRTS was developed to help migrant children — not to surveil them. But internal MSRTS guidelines and private government correspondence told a different story.
The guidelines issued in 1970 instructed teachers and school clerks on how to “track” “Mexico Students.” Additionally, an internal policy memo of the California Department of Education made clear that MSRTS files could be released to law enforcement officers seeking information about “alien” pupils. The MSRTS allowed data collection in the 1970s to fuel the U.S. deportation machine and carceral state, making children and their parents vulnerable to identification by police and immigration agents.
When migrant parents spoke out against hostile school administrators with access to the MSRTS database, local police and federal immigration officers targeted them for arrest. Undocumented minors also risked being turned over to law enforcement when they protested the policies of schools reliant on the MSRTS and joined class-action lawsuits like Plyler v. Doe in 1982 — the Supreme Court case that ensured educational access regardless of immigration status, but which remains vulnerable to reversal.
And now, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit recently revealed that ICE has access to databases with personally identifying information about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, despite multiple assurances to the contrary. Whether ICE will actually use this information and how remains to be seen, but the discovery is still alarming because databases and technology created to support vulnerable young people have long been refashioned for insidious purposes.
The history of immigration demonstrates that access to sensitive data and surveillance powers doesn’t help migrants. Rather, it expands detention and removal efforts, thereby eroding their fundamental rights while also expanding the authority and reach of federal law enforcement agencies. Doing this once again will continue to balloon the deportation machine and surveillance state — to the detriment of us all.