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Over the Line [private]

On the evening on February 22, 2017, people disembarking Delta flight 1583 from San Francisco International Airport to John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, were met at the plane door by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, who required the passengers to show their identification before being allowed down the jetway. This was strange: It was a domestic flight, and JFK is more than 250 air miles from the nearest international border crossing. Some passengers tweeted about the encounter, and their posts were quickly absorbed into the waves of fear that had been breaking for weeks. In late January, Donald J. Trump had consummated his new presidency by signing several executive orders on immigration and border security, including his embattled so-called “Muslim travel ban”; on February 17, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) produced two memos calling for a massive hiring push, broadening deportation criteria, and laying out plans to empower local law enforcement to help with immigration-related arrests. To many nervous observers, the treatment of Americans on flight 1583 seemed like a harbinger of darker troubles to come. “Welcome to Germany circa 1943,” one especially gloomy Twitter user replied to a passenger’s post. “And it’s just getting started.”

Later, a CBP statement said the agents were helping Immigration and Customs Enforcement look for a man who was facing deportation for incurring a number of criminal charges. (He wasn’t on the flight.) While it wasn’t the immigration ambush some people feared, it was easy enough to speculate about Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CBP feeling emboldened by the white nationalist authoritarianism of the West Wing’s new occupants. But federal immigration agents questioning American citizens making no attempt to enter or leave the country, while unnerving and of dubious legality, is hardly a sui generis phenomenon of Trump’s America. Since the 1950s, Queens—along with most of New York state—has been within what’s now commonly called “the 100-mile-zone,” a massive swath of the United States in which Customs and Border Protection in general and Border Patrol agents in particular are empowered by federal law and Supreme Court precedent to operate far beyond the bounds of typical law enforcement.


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Photo by Alex Potter

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