Last month, a social media post was spread in the Charleston area about possible federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity on a weekday morning. These sometimes end up being false alarms, but all too often they are true and highlight a pretty dire reality in our area — the growing authoritarianism in our midst. This same immigration apparatus is also active in an unlikely place — across the country in Portland in the midst of the continuing protests that began after George Floyd was murdered in May. In the midst of this, the U.S. government decided to actively insert itself with a new Department of Homeland Security division, with individuals coming from Customs and Border Patrol. This has, in turn, made the protest increasingly about federal intervention.
Though the majority of protesters are peaceful, there have been acts of violence, particularly aimed at the federal courthouse in Portland. There may be a legitimate case for police intervention in some of the more extreme cases. However, the fact that the federal government has decided to strongly intervene against the wishes of local officials is deeply troubling and seems to have exacerbated the problem and caused more violence. It seems like a classic example of federal overreach, which the Republican Party used to say it was against. Others have said that this is a flailing attempt by Trump to appear like the law and order candidate in the midst of a very tough reelection campaign. The question that needs to be raised is why are there immigration officials policing the streets of America against citizens and what does that say about our republic?
I believe the answer lies in the fact that these agencies within DHS have become more draconian over time, particularly under the Trump administration where they have been given almost free rein to do as they please. The increased detention of non-criminal immigrants, children being put into cages and separated from their families, and revenge against immigrants who have dared to speak out have been a staple of this immigration apparatus.
Unlike the complexity and bureaucracy in the military, it also seems like Trump has more free rein with these DHS officials. There is a reason that he sent these officials rather than the Army to Portland and has threatened to do the same in other cities.
Though Trump has not threatened to send additional officials to the Charleston area, the expanded immigration apparatus is already seen here. Charleston is one of four counties in S.C. that has an agreement with ICE. This policy essentially allows officers to perform some of the roles of immigration enforcement. Al Cannon Detention Center also rents space to ICE to keep detained immigrants, ensuring a greater presence of ICE officials in our region. This environment is particularly concerning with the new announcement of Charleston increasing police patrols and traffic checkpoints, which could put undocumented immigrants in particular danger.
This is not how our country is supposed to operate. The president is not privy to his own special police unit to do as he pleases for his personal political gain. The broader reality is that these agencies need to be completely restructured and limited in their power. Many do not realize how much power the immigration apparatus has gained since Sept. 11, 2001. Though there was immigration enforcement before then, it did not reach the authoritarian levels that define Border Patrol and ICE today. The new Department of Homeland Security has allowed the U.S. to commit human rights violations, terrorize immigrant communities and now seemingly jeopardize our very system of government. This is particularly concerning now that the president has signaled that he may not accept the election results if he loses.
Some people may be concerned that we are losing order and control when groups of protesters feel they can just attack buildings. I understand these legitimate concerns, but a much greater threat to our republic is an apparatus in our government which has gone far beyond its mandate and is now no longer just on our borders, but is in the streets of American cities. From Portland to Charleston, we are losing a bit of our republic’s values.
Will McCorkle is a South Carolina educator and immigration advocate.