By Arturo Castañares
The Trump Administration is taking a bold new step in apprehending undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities by deploying para-military SWAT units on ICE raids.
Starting next week and running through May, 100 specially-trained SWAT agents will be sent to Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, and Newark, New Jersey, from their border assignments where they usually raid smuggling operations full of guns and drugs.
The special units are known as Border Tactical units, or BORTAC, and use Special Forces-style training and equipment, including body armor, sniper rifles, and stun grenades.
Matthew T. Albence, ICE’s acting director, defended the deployment of the special units as a response to sanctuary cities that have adopted policies to limit local police from assisting federal agencies in immigration-related cases.
“As we have noted for years, in jurisdictions where we are not allowed to assume custody of aliens from jails, our officers are forced to make at-large arrests of criminal aliens who have been released into communities,” Albence said. “When sanctuary cities release these criminals back to the street, it increases the occurrence of preventable crimes, and more importantly, preventable victims.”
But critics of immigration crackdowns maintain that having local police help enforce deportations damages their credibility with the communities they police every day. Cities that have adopted policies that limit local police from participating in immigration enforcement efforts are known as “sanctuary cities”.
President Trump has attempted to punish so-called sanctuary cities by cutting federal funding, as well as fighting lawsuits from states and local governments that have sued the federal government over such cuts.
Even a past commissioner of the Border Patrol feels that the escalation of sending BORTAC teams along on immigration raids is a “significant mistake.”
“If you were a police chief and you were going to make an apprehension for a relatively minor offense, you don’t send the SWAT team, and BORTAC is the SWAT team,” said Gil Kerlikowske, the former commissioner who served under President Obama from 2014 to 2017. “They’re trained for much more hazardous missions than this.”
Critics argue that the use of such SWAT units is only a show of force because immigration agents are limited in their powers compared to local police or sheriff’s deputies.
Immigration agents enforce civil infractions for immigration violations, not criminal violations, so they are not allowed to forcibly enter properties in order to make arrests by knocking doors down or raiding locations.
The most visible case of the use of BORTAC agents was in 2000 when then-6-year-old Elian Gonzalez (pictured above) was taken from his relatives in Miami during a custody battle after the boy was rescued at sea while attempting to flee Cuba.
Elian’s mother and step-father had died at sea, and his biological father in Cuba wanted Elian returned to him. When the family could not come to an agreement with immigration officials, ICE and BORTAC agents entered his relatives’ home in Miami and retrieved Elian by force.
The picture of a heavily-armed BORTAC agent pointing an automatic submachine gun at the young boy became front-page news and sparked criticism that the Border Patrol had overreacted in handling the case.