It looks like Chief Border Patrol Agent Jason Owens came to Maine looking for trouble.

Fresh from an assignment in Laredo, Texas, he arrives on the scene with tough talk about immigrant crime and the need for statewide warrantless stops and searches, while maintaining a social media presence aligned with the maximum-suspicion, zero-tolerance approach to enforcement that has made a bad situation worse along the southern border.

Maine is not Texas, and we don’t want the same mistakes that were made there to be repeated here. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation should keep a close eye on the conduct of this federal agency and make sure that it does not get out of hand.

Owens admitted to the Telegram that the Maine border isn’t as busy than the one he left behind (52 apprehensions here last year, as opposed to 32,684 in Laredo), but he tried to make the case that stepped-up enforcement was called for because the people who cross illegally from Canada are more likely to be criminals than the ones who come in from Mexico.

That’s why Owens plans to expand warrantless stops and searches that can take place anywhere within 100 miles of a coastline or an international boundary, allowing agents to patrol not just the border but the entire state, too. Border agents can stop vehicles and board buses, demand to see people’s papers and attempt to search their luggage, looking for evidence of crimes other than illegal border crossings. The searches are technically voluntary, but that’s a distinction that may be lost on someone confronted by an armed agent in uniform.

That kind of “show your papers” policing is not consistent with American values or traditions, and it looks even worse when viewed in the context of Owens’ social media activity.

His public Twitter feed includes reports of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants (but not the statistics that show them to be more law-abiding as a group than the native-born population) and multiple uses of the #BuildTheWall hashtag. The slogan has become a shorthand for all the Trump administration’s immigration policies, encompassing not just the construction of a physical barrier but also family separations, detention in overcrowded cells, denial of medical services and other forms of intentional cruelty designed to discourage people from entering the country, legally or illegally.

Owens claims that he only intended to inform the public with his tweets and did not mean to make a political statement. If that’s the case, he shouldn’t have chosen to repeat a political slogan.

And then there’s his membership in a private Facebook group made up of current and former Border Patrol agents, called “I’m 10-15” – radio code for “aliens in custody.” First uncovered by Pro Publica, members of the group put up multiple racist and xenophobic posts about the human beings these agents come into contact with as part of their work. In one disturbing thread, some agents had fun with a photo of the face-down dead bodies of a father and daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande

Owens claims the group is mostly innocent, allowing that “guys got on there and got out of hand.” Rep. Jared Golden says he has asked Owens about the comments and was assured that he condemned them and hoped the perpetrators would come to justice. That’s somewhat reassuring, but did he feel that way before the group was exposed in the media?

We need Congress to step up its oversight. All members of Maine’s delegation issued statements last week that were generally supportive of the Border Patrol and the necessary job it performs. Rep. Chellie Pingree noted she was an original co-sponsor of a bill that would reduce the “border zone” from 100 miles to 25 miles. Sen. Susan Collins praised Owens as “a career civil servant who has devoted his life to the Border Patrol.”

They should not lose sight of this situation. In light of what’s happening at the southern border, it’s the federal policies Owens is implementing and the hostile culture represented by his social media presence that deserve maximum suspicion and zero tolerance.

 

 

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