Report: Widespread Border Patrol Abuse Goes Unchecked

Humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths issued a new report that details a startling level of abuse toward migrants.

By Julianne Hing Sep 26, 2011

People who are crossing the border or are in the process of being deported are routinely abused by members of the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency, which consistently fails to keep its officers in line and has no mechanism for oversight, a new report has found.

Over the course of two and a half years, the border humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths conducted interviews with 13,000 people along the U.S.-Mexico border, and found more than 30,000 incidents of misconduct that violated people’s basic civil rights and even Customs and Border Patrol’s own limited guidelines for the treatment of people in their custody.

"The problems we found are systemic and pervasive," said Katerina Sinclair, one of the authors of the report. "Abuses occur in all detention centers, across all time points, through all points of entry."

People report enduring psychological, verbal, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Border Patrol officers. Migrants crossing the treacherous border region who are often severely dehydrated are consistently denied water and, the report found, children are more likely to be denied water than adults. People who’ve been separated from loved ones are forced to listen to a continuous loop of migracorridos, border songs about people dying in the desert, while in Border Patrol custody. Others who are in urgent need of medical care are denied exactly that and left to writhe in pain in the arms of fellow inmates in detention centers.

Only 20 percent of people in custody for more than two days received a meal, researchers found. People being repatriated to Mexico are routinely separated from essential personal belongings like their ID, which make them extremely vulnerable to abuse once they arrive in the bustling and dangerous border cities they’re dropped off in. Border-crossing families are often separated from each other and sent to separate detention centers for processing, which makes reuniting with family members nearly impossible.

Customs and Border Patrol denied wrongdoing. "As a matter of policy, Border Patrol agents are required to treat all those they encounter with respect and dignity," U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said in response to the No More Deaths report. "This requirement is consistently addressed in training and consistently reinforced throughout an agent’s career."

This is not the first or only report of its kind, researchers caution. In 2008 No More Deaths tracked identical patterns of abuse. Abuse and mistreatment, researchers say, is common practice in the agency.

Customs and Border Patrol insist that agent misconduct "will not be tolerated in any way."

The evidence, researchers argue, says otherwise. "Not only do these abuses continue, but Border Patrol knows about them and rather than addressing them has adopted the position that they’re not worth taking a real, substantive look at," said Danielle Alvarado, a co-author of the report.

"There’s no mechanism for oversight to hold agents accountable for mistreatment that we know happens across shifts and across sectors."

Indeed, there is paltry little outlined in Border Patrol’s own guidelines about how people in their custody should be treated. In two memoranda No More Deaths obtained outlining repatriation standards, there was no mention of or policy prohibiting physical abuse of people and the separation of family members. What’s more, Border Patrol consistently violated its own policies that do attempt to protect the rights of the most vulnerable populations. For instance, Border Patrol, against its own policies, often repatriates women and children and elderly folks in the middle of the night.

Experts say the problems are compounded because Customs and Border Patrol has very limited definitions of what family is. "There is no policy to keep siblings together," said Jennifer Podkul, a program officer with the Women’s Refugee Commission. "They’re not considered family by Border Patrol. But these children need to be staying together."

Podkul said the systemic reality is impossible to deny in the face of so much separation. 

Researchers also found that for the vast majority people with long histories and strong family ties in the U.S. who are deported, repeatedly making the dangerous journey across the border and facing the threat of federal prosecution and jail time was no deterrent. The implication, researchers say, is that even the highest walls and the harshest immigration enforcement are a futile barrier when loved ones are left behind in the U.S. People will keep trying to get back to their families.

As the Obama administration ramps up its immigration enforcement efforts, the numbers of those being prosecuted, processed, detained and deported continues to grow. Border Patrol abuse is a matter of great urgency, border watchers say.

"What we’re seeing as Americans is mistreatment of people in our name," said Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. "People have different ideas about what our immigration policy should be, but the overwhelming amount of Americans do not want to see mistreatment of innocent people, women and children in their name.

This article has been altered since publication.