‘Trump troops’ in U.S. cities: What the law says about their rights—and yours

July 22, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

Federal agents in military uniforms have recently snatched U.S. citizens off the streets of Portland, Ore., and driven them away in unmarked vans. President Trump, who claims such tactics are necessary to restore law and order, has vowed to carry out similar measures in other U.S. cities.

The incidents—including the beating of a Navy veteran who questioned the agents’ authority—have triggered alarm from critics across the political spectrum. They have raised questions about the identity of the “Trump troops,” as some are calling them, and the legal justification for their presence. Here is a plain English overview of this new style of federal law enforcement.

Who are the federal “troops” in Portland?

The law enforcement units in question have appeared in Army-style camouflage with no identification other than a simple “Police” label on their outfits. It turns out they are special units of the Customs and Border Patrol, an agency under the control of the Department of Homeland Security.

The 100 or so agents are drawn from three separate paramilitary units of the Border Patrol. One is the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), a SWAT-team-style unit that is normally tasked with fighting drug cartels. The other two units involved are called Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue, and a Special Response team.

Why are the Border Patrol units patrolling Portland, Ore.?

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf sent them to protect “monuments, memorials, and statues“—an apparent response to protests in Portland that have occasionally turned violent.

Skeptics, including former FBI Director James Comey, say President Trump’s real purpose in deploying these federal agents is to gin up television images of chaos and conflict—images that can support his claim that Americans need to choose a “law and order” President in November’s election.

Trump critics also note that the recent incidents in Portland are akin to what the President did in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., in early June. On that occasion, Trump used federal agents—including riot control officers from the Bureau of Prisons—to tear-gas peaceful protesters in order to arrange a photo op.

Are the actions of these federal agents even legal?

Hard to say. In the case of the June incident in Washington, legal scholars noted the President had broad powers owing to the capital’s status as a federal district.

In Portland, where the mayor and governor are in charge, Trump’s actions are harder to justify given that there are few federal spaces in the city. Those include U.S. courthouses and a handful of monuments. But many of the actions of the Border Patrol—including pulling people into roving unmarked vans—have taken place miles from such locations.

The Border Patrol, however, enjoys special powers related to its duty to protect the homeland. These include conducting searches and arrests that would otherwise be unconstitutional. The scope of this special power is enhanced because of the so-called 100-mile rule, which gives them jurisdiction within 100 miles of any border—including the Pacific Ocean.

What about the uniforms? Don’t these “troops” have to identify themselves?

No. There is no law saying federal agents have to wear badges with their names or agencies. Meanwhile, those who have defended the events in Portland—including the Wall Street Journal—say that requiring the agents to identify themselves could lead activists to “dox” or otherwise harass them. (This claim is questionable given that ordinary police officers across the country must identify themselves.)

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers have proposed a bill that would require federal agents to identify themselves, but given the partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill, it is unlikely to pass.

It is also possible that pressure from the Pentagon—where Defense Secretary Mark Esper is reportedly concerned that Trump’s law enforcement tactics could damage perceptions of the military—could change how the federal agents are deployed.

Will “Trump troops” turn up in other U.S. cities?

The President vowed on Monday to send federal units to other cities run by “liberal Democrats.” Those potential destinations include Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Detroit.

His pledge brought furious reactions from mayors and governors, however, who have vowed to resist such moves. Meanwhile, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit over the recent federal actions in Portland, which could present a legal obstacle to Trump’s tactics.

The expanded use of “Trump troops” may also come down to a political calculation by the President over whether the controversial tactic serves to help him in the polls.

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