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ACLU asks DHS to take action on complaints of abuse, misconduct by U.S. border agents

"The agency's internal oversight and discipline system failed to prevent abuses or hold personnel accountable," the ACLU said in a letter to DHS.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office agents and Border Patrol agents participate in an operative to find illegal migrants at the International Bridge Paso del Norte-Santa Fe in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua State, Mexico on July 1, 2019.
U.S. border agents take part in an operation to find illegal migrants at International Bridge Paso del Norte-Santa Fe in Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua state in Mexico on July 1, 2019.Herika Martinez / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union are calling on the Department of Homeland Security to address allegations of abuse and misconduct against migrants by Customs and Border Protection personnel during the Trump administration in 2019 and 2020.

The allegations were detailed in 13 complaints the ACLU filed against Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, during the Trump administration. The lawyers said in a letter that so far they have no indication that any action has been taken either to punish the officers or to reform the agency to prevent abuse and respond to such allegations.

"The agency's internal oversight and discipline system failed to prevent abuses or hold personnel accountable for their actions," the letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.

Some of the most egregious claims stem from the spring and summer of 2019, when CBP was overcrowded because of an influx of asylum-seekers at the Southwest border. According to the complaints detailed in the letter to Mayorkas, families held at the Paso del Norte port of entry in El Paso, Texas, in May 2019 described being "crammed into dirt-filled caged outdoor areas without enough space to stand."

In another case, a family kept in an overcrowded facility in the Rio Grande Valley described agents kicking migrants who fell asleep, as well as being denied medical care by an agent who was alleged to have said, "This is my country and I make the rules."

The accounts of the overcrowded conditions and what Homeland Security might do to prevent them from happening again are particularly significant as CBP is again facing a backlog of children in its custody.

Image: Asylum seekers sleep on the street near the Paso del Norte border crossing bridge
Asylum-seekers sleep on the street near the Paso del Norte border crossing bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Oct. 7, 2019.Guillermo Arias / ACLU file

Also detailed in the accounts were allegations that the agency made mistakes in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. In March 2020, immigrants at Border Patrol Station 1 in El Paso said they were held with over 150 other people in a single room where some were exhibiting flu-like symptoms and were not able to sleep more than 3 feet apart.

Another account, from July, alleged verbal abuse by Border Patrol agents. "Forget about asylum, we might just take away your daughter," a Border Patrol agent is alleged to have told a woman he was interrogating. According to the complaint, another agent told a cell full of detained women and children: "Why do they send us their trash? You are all trash."

"The core issue here is a lack of effective accountability mechanisms within the entire Department of Homeland Security," said Shaw Drake, a staff attorney and policy counsel with the ACLU of Texas. "At the end of the day, the responsibility lies on the leadership of the agency and the administration itself for ensuring that their agents, all the way down to front-line workers, are acting appropriately and not treating people in abusive ways."

Drake said no action has been taken despite the complaints, journalists' accounts and inspector general's reports about poor conditions for migrants during overcrowded periods.

A Honduran woman who said she was detained with her teenage daughter for four days at a Border Patrol facility in March 2019 told NBC News that she remembers her experience as "hell, because it wasn't something I was expecting, that they would treat immigrants that badly."

"There was a moment when I did regret coming, but after that I remembered that it was for a better future for my daughter," she said.

Allegations of abuse by CBP predate the Trump administration. The American Immigration Council found that the agency took "no action" in 95.9 percent of complaints filed from 2012 to 2015.

CBP and DHS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In the past, CBP has responded to other complaints about how it treats migrants by saying it provides multiple avenues to report allegations and that it treats migrants in its custody with dignity and respect.

In a statement, the DHS inspector general's office said, "DHS OIG takes allegations of abuse and misconduct by DHS employees seriously, and we publish our work on our public website, as appropriate. To protect the integrity of our work, we do not comment on specific, open complaints or investigations. We do have several ongoing systemic reviews that address issues raised in the complaints. For example, we are reviewing CBP’s procedures for detained migrants experiencing serious medical conditions, CBP’s holding of detainees beyond 72 hours, and the circumstances surrounding a childbirth at a Border Patrol station in 2020."