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Making their own rules, border agents threaten travelers

Protesters rallied in support of immigrants on Monday in Portland, Ore.Don Ryan/Associated Press

By now, the damage and abuse are staggering.

A 71-year-old Australian children’s book author was left in tears after being interrogated for two hours at the Los Angeles airport by customs officials. “I have never in my life been spoken to with such insolence, treated with such disdain, with so many insults and with so much gratuitous impoliteness,” she said. When she arrived at her hotel, she “sobbed like a baby.”

Then there’s the noted French historian who was held for 10 hours at Houston International Airport and almost deported before lawyers stepped in. A detained software engineer who had to answer an engineering test to prove he wasn’t lying. And US citizens are not exempt from this overzealous and humiliating treatment by federal agents either. The son of Muhammad Ali was detained for two hours, along with his mother, upon arriving from Jamaica at a Florida airport. A US Olympic fencer. A former prime minister of Norway.

None of these individuals were terrorists, and yet they were treated as threats and terrorized, instead of being welcomed into our country as expected. And those are only the public anecdotes — imagine how many more people have been unduly detained and harassed at US points of entry.


It’s the distressing behavior of an agency, Customs and Border Protection, whose employees apparently feel free to make their own rules under the new Trump administration. Despite the collapse of the president’s ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, rank-and-file customs and border agents are still operating without restraint. These agents now act as though they have free rein to haphazardly and rudely enforce border security, completely discounting the sophisticated visa controls in place to vet visitors from all over the world before they show up at the airport.


And in yet another alarming move, the Globe reported on Wednesday that the local CBP office has asked for bed space in detention facilities operated by police departments in the Greater Boston area. It’s safe to assume CBP is preparing for an influx of travelers who won’t be allowed into the country due to the expected new travel ban. These developments also reflect a disturbing new culture at the federal agency. The bed space would be used to hold detainees who have been denied entry to the United States prior to being deported. But local police departments are not, and shouldn’t be, in the business of jailing travelers on behalf of the federal government.

What is the logic of harassing travelers and potentially denying them admission to the country if they already have legitimate and thoroughly vetted documents? All these stories add up to a troubling trend that’s not only damaging America’s standing on the international stage, but also already having clear economic consequences. Foreign tourism is down 6.8 percent, which could mean a loss to the tune of a few billion dollars. It’s a phenomenon already dubbed the “Trump Slump.”

This represents a serious leadership crisis at US ports of entry. Federal agents who control the borders and immigration system are taking cues from Trump. It’s no accident their unions supported Trump the candidate. In fact, shortly after the president signed the Muslim travel ban executive order, their unions issued a joint statement boasting of an increased morale among agents and officers: “President Trump’s actions now empower us to fulfill this life-saving mission, and it will indeed save thousands of lives and billions of dollars.”


In fact, the truth is the opposite. The American economy is poised to lose billions of dollars, and the country will not be safer because agents feel they have carte blanche to harass elderly authors. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly must restore leadership and professionalism at the agency. Continued abuses of power at the border will only isolate and weaken the country.