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US-Mexico Border Patrol Agents Can Get Away With Pretty Much Anything

A FOIA litigation reveals serious allegations of abuse — with little consequence — by patrol agents on the US-Mexico border.
May 7, 2014, 8:25pm
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A border patrol agent kicked a pregnant, undocumented immigrant he was apprehending, causing her to miscarry.

Another smashed an immigrant’s head against a rock, causing a hematoma. Another stomped on an immigrant’s back, while he was on the ground. Yet another stripped an immigrant and left him naked in a cell, calling him “faggot and homo.”

'Along with immigration reform we would really love to see more accountability.'

These are only some of the allegations of abuse recorded in a report released on Tuesday by the American Immigration Council (AIC), an immigrant advocacy group.

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The list of accusations, which were gathered from 809 reports of abuse obtained by researchers through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation, included reports of immigrants being pepper-sprayed, kicked while already in handcuffs, and grabbed from the throat.

Some, including minors, were threatened with violence or death, and coerced into signing documents. Others reported being touched inappropriately, or forced to have sex.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency in charge of border patrols, did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment on the report on Wednesday.

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The allegations, the researchers behind the report say, are but a tiny fraction of the abuse likely to go on along the US-Mexico border, as most victims would never dare to report their mistreatment to authorities.

“Someone who is undocumented may be more afraid of filing a complaint for fear of putting himself at risk,” Guillermo Cantor, one of the researchers behind the report, told VICE News. “Even if you file a complaint, if nothing happens that’s not very encouraging, and people may not have the resources to file a complaint if they have already been deported, or if they are in the US but in a precarious legal status.”

The data available says very little, but those swept up in abuse might also include US citizens and permanent residents, he said. Regardless of status, the mechanism to file complaints is a maze.

“The whole system is really confusing, we realized that there were so many different channels that were supposedly available to file complaints, but those are not clear to anyone,” Cantor said. “And if they are not clear to us, who are researchers and have access to people in the agency, someone who is a victim of abuse and wants to file a complaint, they probably don’t really know what to do.”

Those who do try find themselves dealing with a border protection agency that lacks a centralized system of accountability.

'We don’t really know how serious they are about investigating these complaints.'

Of the reports of abuse examined by the AIC — which were filed between January 2009 and January 2012 — 97 percent resulted in “no action,” the report found.

Only one agent was suspended in connection with a reported abuse, and the agency took an average of 122 days to reach a conclusion on the cases it examined — with as much of 40 percent of them still pending.

“We don’t really know how serious they are about investigating these complaints, but we do know from the results of this study and based on the information that they chose to share with us, that 97 percent of those cases led to nothing,” Cantor said. “That is really telling.”

The border patrol agency was not exactly dying to share the data either.

“It wasn’t a regular FOIA request, it was a FOIA litigation,” Cantor said. “Groups working on the border haven’t been very successful obtaining any information directly from the agency. They haven’t been very transparent about what they do, they are not very cooperative.”

That needs to change, critics said.

'What we know about the correlation between border crossings and enforcement is that there has always been a lack of accountability when it comes to the actions of the state.'

“This is information that should actually be available to people,” Gabriella Sanchez, a research fellow at the Border Crossing Observatory at Monash University, told VICE News. “Border patrol has never made an effort to implement any kind of mechanism that allows for a free flow of information.”

The AIC’s report highlighted a “systemic” problem that immigrant advocates and human rights groups have long been aware of.

“This is not new information, this is something that has been going on for a very long time,” Sanchez said. “What we know about the correlation between border crossings and enforcement is that there has always been a lack of accountability when it comes to the actions of the state.”

“What is unique about this report is the fact that CBP has actually released this information,” she added.

The data may provide just an initial glimpse into much broader, and largely unreported, abusive practices.

'Abuses included inappropriate and unlawful searches, touching, and seizures, and some instances of sexual abuse.'

“We are quite concerned that border patrol and customs and border protection in general have serious problems with their accountability mechanisms,” Clara Long, a researcher with Human Rights Watch focusing on the US-Mexico border, told VICE News, also citing a high number of deaths at the hands of border patrol officers — and lack of transparency when investigating those cases. “What the AIC report is pointing to, is that it’s not just these incidents of people dying, there’s also a very systemic lack of accountability and transparency.”

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Part of the problem is that while funding for border patrols has grown massively in the last couple decades, investment in systems of checks and balances and self-policing are far less popular.

“Border patrol has doubled in size, there was a lot of extra funding from Congress to increase border enforcement, but the funding that came in didn’t necessarily also fund accountability mechanisms. The office of internal investigations, the ombudsman, those things were not funded in the same way,” Long said. “And the immigration reform being discussed last summer, while we hoped it would pass, also included even more funding for border enforcement.”

“Along with immigration reform we would really love to see more accountability,” she added.

More border patrol agents has also translated into more inexperienced agents on the field, the report suggested — though officials with the Department of Homeland Security, which supervises CBP, said the growth of the agency has not impacted training.

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“It is an objective piece of info that the CBP has hired all these new people. If you have an organization that’s hiring all these people, it’s impossible for them to perform in the way they’re supposed to perform,” Cantor said.

“This is something that really needs to be addressed, especially considering the amount of resources that DHS has, we’re not talking about an underfunded agency," Cantor said. "They have all these resources, and they have been deporting as many people as possible, and they cannot find a way to streamline the processing of complaints, which seems very manageable? That’s one of the paradoxes that we wanted to highlight.”

The AIC report found that physical abuse was the most prevalent complaint — alleged in 40 percent of cases, and followed by excessive use of force, at 38 percent. Other abuses included inappropriate and unlawful searches, touching, and seizures, and some instances of sexual abuse, reported in about one percent of cases.

'What are their names? What are their stories?'

Most complaints were filed in the “Tucson Sector” — the patrol area covering most of Arizona, — with the “Rio Grande Valley Sector,” in Texas, coming in at a close second.

The complaints of abuse released by the agency offer very few details, researchers said — a problem that’s left to rights advocates and researchers to make up for.

“Nobody is going to come forward and document the abuses of people who do not exist or who are not to exist,” Sanchez said, referring to authorities’ reluctance to discuss the problem. “I can have all the numbers that I want, but who are they? What are their names? What are their stories? It’s not a matter of counting, it’s a matter of identifying the practices that are leading to this.”

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi