Last week two Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers parked their official vehicle in front of an elementary school in Washington Heights and went to lunch nearby. They had no business in the school.
But their vehicle sparked anxiety that spread fast. That was entirely understandable, since the Agency is associated with enforcement policies that have wrought havoc among communities of new immigrants. Parking it on the sidewalk around dismissal time was a red flag.
The officers should have been sensitive to that, and avoided drawing attention to their presence, particularly near a school. They may have been unthinking or indifferent, but probably they didn’t intend to be provocative. Maybe they didn’t want to park near the restaurant as a precaution against potential confrontation with other customers.
Whether they had a legal right to park where they did is besides the point. The school principal encountered the officers and reportedly berated and lectured them about parking on the sidewalk. The officers made some snide retort about whether they would be spoken to in the same way were they NYPD. Their defensiveness fanned the flames of misapprehension . With a little discretion they might have de-escalated the event. There was much relief when they finally drove off with nobody in custody.
This confrontation was a misunderstanding that was driven by a realistic fear driven by news accounts of families being disrupted and communities in upheaval because of out-of-control federal police fervor in the name of immigration control.
The principal, a City Council member and Chancellor Carranza displayed moral leadership by comforting the community. They were not grandstanding and their passion was not over-the-top but in reasonable bounds, despite being a trifle inaccurate from a technical standpoint.
First, if CBP possesses the authority to enter a school building on what is lawfully-sanctioned official business, their right of access cannot be obstructed. Second, the vehicle was from Customs and Border Protection, which is not interchangeable with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It is ICE that is accused of causing upheaval in immigrant communities.
A few days after the occurrence, the principal accompanied by her guitar, led a crowd gathered outside the school in “This Land Is Your Land.” This was not a finger-wagging gesture by the school leader o establish her bona-fides as a resistance fighter, as sarcastically suggested by a right-wing commentator.
There is no doubt that parking the CBP van on the sidewalk right outside a school entrance was beyond regrettable. It was an insult to the eye and a jolt to the heart. But caution should be taken not to paint all federal law-enforcement with “too broad a brush” .
It was CBP that a few weeks ago interdicted enough fentanyl to have killed millions of people, regardless of their citizenship status. And just days ago CBP made a huge seizure of deadly drugs in Newark that very likely would have destroyed lives in the neighborhood of the school.
CBP’s assistant commissioner for public affairs properly took the initiative to unequivocally apologize to the principal by phone and volunteered to host an assembly at the school to assuage the community’s fears. A parent, misidentifying the agency as Customs and Border Patrol, suspected that this was “CBP testing the waters.”
And the proprietor of the restaurant where the two officers had lunch allegedly said that “ICE is the gestapo”. There are still Holocaust survivors available who can explain the difference. Perhaps he should stick to ribs and not history.
Inflammatory rhetoric should be called out, regardless of its source. In this case, much distress could have been prevented by proper identification of purpose and authority and attention to protocol. Still, when it comes to mission, the perceived overlap between CBP and ICE is too close for comfort, with the human stakes so high.