U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the largest police force in the nation, operates under expanded powers and with little oversight. Its officers are given tremendous latitude while dealing with a vulnerable population.

It is in the best of cases an invitation for overreach and exploitation. And with that power in the hands of an administration that has shown little respect for the rights of immigrants, from undocumented workers to naturalized citizens, it is not the best of cases.

Two bills before Congress would limit the chance that something goes wrong. Together, they would rein back the scope of power handed to border patrol and immigration agents while shining a light on their actions. Even at a time when there is no clear path forward for immigration reform, the proposals should not be controversial.

One bill, from Democratic New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, would require border patrol and immigration agents to document every time they stop, search or interrogate someone — except at airports or border crossings — and report that information to Congress and the public.

Another, from Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Patty Murray of Washington, would reduce the area in which agents are allowed to stop vehicles and search private land without a warrant.

EXTRAORDINARY POWERS

Border patrol agents are given extraordinary powers within their jurisdiction. Where law enforcement would normally need to meet the standard of probable cause, they are able to stop vehicles based on reasonable suspicion alone. They can set up temporary checkpoints, obstensibly to check immigration status, such as the one conducted near Lincoln last month. They can go on private property without a warrant. They can board trains and buses, and demand proof of citizenship.

And they can do it in places far from the border. At 100 miles, the border zone covers all of Maine and most or all of the rest of New England, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Florida. It covers Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and Houston.

All told, two-thirds of the country’s population lives within the zone, making them subject to the powers and whims of immigration and border agents, and the administration that controls them.

At their best, the checkpoints rarely net more than a few immigration violations and a handful of low-level drug arrests, and along with the boardings don’t do much more than hassle citizens as well as foreign visitors — of which Maine has more than a few this time of year.

At their worst, the checkpoints violate constitutional rights and provide an outlet for the discriminatory impulses and suspicions of border agents.

TRANSPARENCY NEEDED

At one bus station in Rochester, New York, a lawsuit revealed that agents mistakenly arrested 300 people with legal status between 2006 and 2010 — they were immigrants with green cards and visitors with tourist visas, as well as 12 American citizens.

In another case, an American-born citizen who spoke Spanish was arrested even after presenting a valid driver’s license, because, the agent said, he was shaking and avoiding eye contact.

As tight-lipped as the federal government is over immigration enforcement, we have no way of knowing how many more cases there are like those. That’s where Gillibrand’s bill comes in.

There are more than 50,000 agents in border patrol and immigration enforcement, and most of what we know of their actions comes from news reports and advocacy organizations. When agents raid a plant, board a bus, or wait outside a school or courthouse to whisk people away, the public doesn’t get much more information than what is provided by witnesses at the scene.

Even as kids were taken from their families with little regard for how they would be cared for or ultimately returned, the American public was kept in the dark.

That’s not how law enforcement should work in this country.

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