The War at Home: Report documents physical, verbal abuse of migrants by Border Patrol

A Border Patrol agent processes individuals at a facility in Nogales, Arizona. (CBP Photography / License: Creative Commons License)

A Border Patrol agent processes individuals at a facility in Nogales, Arizona. (CBP Photography / License: Creative Commons License)

By Alberto Tomas Halpern

A Border Patrol agent processes individuals at a facility in Nogales, Arizona. (CBP Photography / License: Creative Commons License)

A Border Patrol agent processes individuals at a facility in Nogales, Arizona. (CBP Photography / License: Creative Commons License)

Javier, a 35-year-old from Hidalgo, Mexico, was en route to New York where friends were going to help him find work. He had planned on returning back home after a few years working in the United States. Javier never made it past the border. He was apprehended by Border Patrol officers in January 2012 as he attempted to cross into the United States near Nogales, Sonora.

Javier is one of many recently repatriated migrants from Mexico who have detailed physical, verbal and psychological abuse—including beatings, sleep deprivation and racial slurs—by Border Patrol officers after being apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“They pushed me around. And they didn’t let us sleep,” Javier says in a report released this week by the Immigration Policy Center. “Every time we started to sleep they forced us to get up and march or clean the room. We didn’t sleep the entire night. They took away our watches so we didn’t know what time it was. I was forced to look at the floor and wasn’t allowed to look up,” he said.

The report found that 11 percent of deported migrants reported some form of physical abuse while being apprehended or detained and 23 percent reported being on the receiving end of racial, national and homophobic slurs.

“It is difficult to justify how statements such as ‘fucking wetback,’ ‘dirty little Mexican woman, let’s see if you can cross again after this!’ or ‘Mexican pieces of shit’ are integral to agents’ abilities to carry out day-to-day duties,” the report says.

The Department of Homeland Security or DHS, the federal organization that oversees Customs and Border Protection or CBP and Border Patrol, declined numerous requests for a telephone interview and to answer specific questions related to the report. DHS also declined to confirm or deny any allegation made in the report.

“Overall, we find that the physical and verbal mistreatment of migrants is not a random, sporadic occurrence, but, rather, a systematic practice,” the report states.

The authors of the report, UTEP professor Josiah Heyman, George Washington University assistant professor Daniel Martinez and University of Arizona doctoral candidate Jeremy Slack, document a range of inhumane practices employed by DHS personnel, specifically CBP, the parent organization that oversees the U.S. Border Patrol. The three authors worked in collaboration with the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, DC nonprofit organization, as well as the University of Arizona to conduct their research and publish the report.

The findings are part of a three part series called “Bordering on Criminal: The Routine Abuse of Migrants in the Removal System,” that used data obtained from interviews of 1,110 randomly selected deported migrants surveyed at migrant shelters in Mexico between 2009 and 2012.

“That’s a great big hunk of people. That’s one in ten. We’re talking about many hundreds of thousands of encounters at the border and also, to some extent, in the interior,” Heyman said of reported physical abuse in an interview with Newspaper Tree this week.

Of those reporting physical abuse, 70 percent said they were either pushed, pulled, dragged, lifted, placed in a stressful position, spat on, or had pressure stressed on them by a fist, arm or knee. Most concerning, the authors say, are the six percent and three percent of migrants reporting physical abuse who said they were left with lasting injuries or were sexually abused.

The report also notes that personal possessions are often taken from detained migrants by U.S. officials and never returned. Those possessions include national identification cards, cellular telephones and money. One out of four deported migrants had their Mexican ID cards taken and never returned.

Martinez, one of the authors, said deporting migrants back to Mexico without their national ID cards, cell phones or money is of extreme concern, as migrants are usually deported to a city far from their homes and are left with few resources.

“Imagine being deported to an unfamiliar city,” Martinez said, “In Mexico, if you don’t have an ID, you can’t secure a wire transfer and you’re at risk of harassment by Mexican officials. Having an ID taken is extremely problematic.”

The authors say that when taken in the context of other similar studies, the abuse of migrants in U.S. custody “points to an organizational subculture stemming from a lack of transparency and accountability in U.S. Customs and Border Protection.”

When asked to comment on the reports of abuse and mistreatment, CBP spokespersons Michael Friel and Bill Brooks referred all questions to DHS headquarters.

“The report that you are referring to mentions a number of agencies, including state and local. Because it involves a number of agencies, DHS public affairs is responding to those inquires,” Friel said.

In an email responding to specific questions about the alleged abuse, including whether CBP or Border Patrol officers deprive migrants of sleep; use racial, national or homophobic slurs; or never return migrants’ possessions, DHS spokesperson Marsha Catron provided Newspaper Tree with a boilerplate response.

“DHS takes seriously the safety and welfare of detainees and those in our custody and our facilities are maintained in accordance with applicable laws and policies. Every DHS employee is held to the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct. Accusations of alleged unlawful conduct on or off duty, are investigated thoroughly and if substantiated, appropriate action is taken,” Catron said.

Heyman said DHS must respond to the allegations in order to effect change and that anything short of that is unacceptable.

“They have to go beyond the stage of denial to reach the stage of doing something systematic to bring about changes, because the problems are systematic,” Heyman said.

Martinez said DHS’ refusal to acknowledge the reports of abuse is something everyone should be concerned with.

“One major issue with Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol has been the lack of transparency and accountability and the little recourse that migrants have in filing a complaint,” he said.

Ultimately, it’s Congress’ and the executive branch of government’s role to hold DHS and CBP accountable, Heyman said, noting that Congress holds the department’s purse strings and has the ability to pass legislation that would shed light on the organization.

In response to the reports of abuse, Congressman and Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman, Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX 15), issued the following statement to Newspaper Tree:

“The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) has always been concerned with the treatment of detained individuals. No person under custody should ever be subject to inhumane conditions or even worse, death. As Chairman of the CHC and Congressman of Texas’ 15th Congressional District, I am concerned about the report’s findings.”

On November 18, the Center for Investigative Reporting published a story detailing how migrants captured by Border Patrol officers were held in freezing detention facility rooms.

“According to interviews and court documents, many immigrants have been held for days in rooms kept at temperatures so low that men, women and children have developed illnesses associated with the cold, lack of sleep, overcrowding, and inadequate food, water and toilet facilities,” the news report says.

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), filed legislation this week, in response to the news story, that would set minimum standards that ensure migrants held in CBP facilities are treated humanely.

“No human being held by United States authorities should ever be exposed to hunger, extreme temperatures, physical or verbal abuse, or denial of medical care,” Boxer said. She added that she will continue to fight in Congress to make sure “basic standards for human treatment are put in place.”

While migrants who are apprehended in the U.S. are transferred among multiple federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies during the deportation process, the migrants surveyed cited abuse by Border Patrol officers at a higher rate than any other law enforcement agency. According to the report, Border Patrol accounted for 67 percent of reported physical mistreatment and 75 percent of reported verbal mistreatment towards migrants in custody. Heyman said that’s because detained migrants have the most contact with Border Patrol officers than any other law enforcement agency.

Vicki Gaubeca, the director of the Regional Center for Border Rights at the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU in Las Cruces, said she is very familiar with the report and concurs with its findings. She said that while CBP has quickly grown to become one of the largest law enforcement organizations in the country, the organization did not implement oversight and accountability measures to keep up with its growth.

“We’re finding out about all these abuses and no agents are being held accountable for these abuses. The more they’re not held accountable, the more they can get away with it,” Gaubeca said. “Unfortunately, we’ve not only criminalized migrants, we’ve dehumanized them and made it permissible to mistreat them.”

Gaubeca said that it’s not just migrants that experience some form of abuse by CBP officers, but permanent residents and U.S. citizens are also mistreated. Even more problematic, she said, is that the process to lodge a complaint against a CBP officer is extremely difficult and wrought with inconsistencies.

A September 2013 redacted report by DHS’ office of the inspector general found that complaints against CBP officers alleging use of force are nearly impossible to track. Complaints filed against officers are assigned one of several case allegation codes. In the case of allegations of use of force by officers, no designation exists.

“As a result, we were unable to identify the total number of excessive force allegations and investigations involving CBP employees,” the report states.

Gaubeca said she is concerned over the DHS findings, saying that not only is DHS not tracking complaints or incidents involving the use of force, they’re also not conducting enough training on the use of force.

“It sounds like they’re not connecting the dots. They weren’t even sure how many cases of excessive use of force existed. I doubt they’re tracking other types of abuse. I think right now, they’re very deficient,” Gaubeca said.

Heyman said that while he does not think CBP, as an organization, is racist, citing the organization’s large Latino workforce, he does think the current state of politics in the United States has developed a culture and framework for CBP to get away with officers using racial slurs. But given that, Heyman adds, “There are a lot of racists in the organization and there are lots of nationalists in the organization.”

And although the reports of physical abuses are very concerning, Heyman said the documentation of verbal abuses is most telling about the organization and its officers.

“Verbal abuses are interesting because they give us some idea about the state of mind of the violating officer,” he said.

Unfortunately, Heyman said, DHS and CBP avoid transparent and accountable practices under the guise of national security.

“I can speculate that the security framework is part of what causes or justifies or both, this kind of closed approach. It’s also possible to speculate that it’s just a rationale, that they don’t want to be accountable and that, therefore, they can hide behind the security framework,” he said.

Heyman said that DHS is fearful of putting any information in the public realm that could be used to judge or criticize the department and its organizations, especially information that well established nongovernmental organizations or the media is pursuing.

“So, by being very closed, they always have this hidden thing. They can hide behind the security framework,” he said.

Heyman adds that his report and similar reports from other nongovernmental organizations that expose abuses and offer recommendations are not meant to merely criticize the federal agency, but to improve upon it. He notes that lengthy, detailed dialogues with CBP over accountability and oversight measures have been made, but it is difficult at best to know if that dialogue has resulted in effecting changes.

“There’s not been evidence so far of change,” Heyman said. “It’s just been a very cryptic kind of organization to deal with. We get very little information going in the other direction.”

Given the abuses documented by Heyman, Martinez and Slack, coupled with CBP’s use of military hardware and technology, including unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, at least two of the authors see CBP potentially taking on the role of a secretive paramilitary organization, rather than a law enforcement organization.

“If we see comprehensive immigration reform that is solely focused on security, we’re going to see the increased militarization of the border where border cities are living in a military state,” Martinez said. “There is no doubt in my mind that this is being deployed to the southwestern border at a high rate.”

Heyman said that with CBP shielding itself from public scrutiny and transparency under the framework of national security, the organization is operating in deep concealment, as if it were conducting military operations.

“I think there is a long-term build up of a framework by which Mexicans and Central Americans are handled using government techniques that fall in the middle of a range of military and civilian policing,” he said. “And it is being applied to Latin Americans. It’s applied disproportionately to Mexicans and Central Americans.”


Editor’s note: Borderzine is proud to re-publish online, print and broadcast stories from journalists who attended our workshop “Reporting Immigration: From the Border to the Heartland.” The workshop was sponsored by the McCormick Foundation and held at the University of Texas at El Paso in October 2013.

This story was previously published on Newspaper Tree.

4 thoughts on “The War at Home: Report documents physical, verbal abuse of migrants by Border Patrol

  1. A classy and splendid article – well done, Sr. Halpern!

    This, however, caught my eye: “Heyman said that while he does not think CBP, as an organization, is racist, citing the organization’s large Latino workforce…”

    That has not been my experience during the years I’ve volunteered at a Jesuit-run comedor in Nogales, Sonora that offers food, clothing, and medical aide to deported migrants, the majority of whom are “Latino.”

    Virtually all migrants will tell you they are most fearful when they are apprehended by a fellow “Latino.” (Most of whom, hereabouts, are 1st or 2nd generation US citizens, virtually all with Mexican origin.)

    These “Latino” agents are far more likely to be abusive, migrants say.

    What may be the underlying cause of this?

    Well, it reminds me of my Scots-Irish dad who despised my mom’s Scots-Irish uncles who emigrated to the US later than his family. They embarrassed him with their poverty, lack of education, and crude manners. Dad wanted nothing to do with them, and, despite his being, in general, a kind man, he often used shocking language to describe them.

    Which was, to him, a way to separate himself and to affirm his being superior.

    Could the same be said of abusive “Latino ” agents?

    I’m afraid so…

  2. This supposed report is so riddled with holes, skew, and spin. If you go around asking arrested people if they thought their arresters were nice enough to them, almost all arrestees will say no. If someone has pressure placed on them while being arrested, that is not abuse. Sure, there may be an occasional instance of law enforcement officers crossing a line, but interviewing the people that just had their hopes dashed by a Border Patrol Agent that apprehended him or her is no way to find the truth. Good luck not finding the same result in every prison when you ask about their conditions and treatment upon arrest.

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