ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Government watchdogs said today that they will be looking at the federal law enforcement response to racial justice protests in Portland, Ore. Last night Mayor Ted Wheeler called the federal presence an unconstitutional occupation and was later tear-gassed in the crowd. Federal agents have used unmarked vehicles to grab protesters off the streets, and critics say they did not have probable cause. But federal officials say their agents are acting within the law and have been doing these kinds of operations for decades. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Images of federal officers in camo uniforms making arrests on the streets of Portland have alarmed critics who think President Trump is using his forces, including a Border Patrol tactical unit, as an all-purpose gendarme. Among the skeptics is the former border boss under President Obama, Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Gil Kerlikowske.
GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, they're clearly the wrong group to be doing this. I mean, this is not something they're trained to do. My guess is that they would probably also very clearly tell you it's not something they want to do.
BURNETT: Kerlikowske asserts the Border Patrol unit known as BORTAC, which was dispatched to Portland, is chiefly trained to pursue fugitives and criminals.
KERLIKOWSKE: I mean, they track people. We use them in upstate New York to track the fugitive escapees. We use them to track people that shot state troopers in Pennsylvania. This is clearly an urban environment and civil unrest that is not in their wheelhouse.
BURNETT: Not so, say current officials with the Department of Homeland Security. They insist BORTAC is not being used as Trump's secret police. The officials said the agents are trained to put down prison riots and have broad authority to assist federal law enforcement anywhere in the U.S. In Portland, they were protecting federal buildings because the protesters had grown so violent, said acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan.
MARK MORGAN: These agents and officers are among the most highly trained agents and officers that we have within CBP, and that includes training in riot control.
BURNETT: Demonstrators in Portland have called out the agents for not identifying themselves. The agent's name is not on the uniform, officials say, because protesters have identified some of them and posted the information on social media. Agents use unmarked vehicles so they won't be torched or vandalized. And Morgan says police is emblazoned on their flak vests, and they wear a smaller, light-colored CBP patch.
MORGAN: I've seen news reporting after news reporting, tweet after tweet, saying, quote, "you know, unidentified, you know, masked stormtroopers." It is offensive to refer to these dedicated men and women that are out there as law enforcement professionals to make that reference.
BURNETT: There is precedent for deploying Border Patrol agents far from their duties on the nation's frontiers. In 1962 they were deputized as U.S. Marshals to protect James Meredith as the first Black student entering the University of Mississippi. In 1987 they retook control of a federal prison in Louisiana that had been overrun by Cuban inmates. And in 1992 green-suited border agents were sent to Los Angeles alongside police and National Guard to quell riots after the Rodney King verdict. In that case, they were later criticized for also conducting immigration sweeps of people who were in the country illegally.
Victor Manjarrez was a young Border Patrol agent deployed to LA back then in a federal force of a thousand. He went on to join senior leadership. He said agents were not trained 30 years ago like they are today.
VICTOR MANJARREZ: Of those thousand federal officers, 600 of those were Border Patrol agents. The big difference now is you have some folks that have really specialized training in riot control.
BURNETT: Some Democratic mayors and members of Congress have called these teams of agents unwanted occupying forces whose presence escalates street violence, and they've asked the White House to remove them. But more are on the way. Trump administration officials say DHS investigators are among federal squads rushing to Chicago and Albuquerque. They'll be there to help combat rising crime, not to take back the streets from protesters. John Burnett, NPR News.
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