In May 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in partnership with the University of Chicago Law School published a report regarding the treatment of unaccompanied immigrant children by Customs Border Protection (CBP) agents. The report is based on an administrative complaint letter which a coalition of legal services and advocacy organizations filed with the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in 2014 documenting CBP’s treatment of unaccompanied immigrant children, as well as over 30,000 pages of documents, including hundreds of internal government records, related to complaints of abuse between 2009 to 2014 obtained through the use of Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests and litigation.
Throughout, children between the ages of five and 17, provide appalling details of the conditions and abuse that they state they were subject to while under the custody of Border Patrol. Frequently, the abuse they detail is abuse which they say happened at the hand of agents themselves.
In total, “ one-quarter of the children reported physical abuse, including sexual assault, the use of stress positions, and beatings by Border Patrol agents,” states the ACLU report (“Neglect and Abuse of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” page 1). “More than half also reported denial of necessary medical care-resulting, at times, in hospitalization. Eighty percent reported inadequate food and water.” The administrative complaint filed with the CRCL (CRCL Administrative Complaint Letter, pages 78-105) also notes that approximately “15 percent of these children reported being separated from other family members” (CRCL Administrative Complaint Letter, page 2).
Reading through the ACLU report and the document appendix, there’s one thing, in particular, that might stand out to residents of the Rio Grande Valley: many of the highlighted cases are cases lodged against Border Patrol agents in our own backyards. Additionally, almost half of the cases highlighted in the 2014 CRCL administrative complaint letter are from the RGV.
In a response document that the CRCL provided to the legal service and advocacy organizations that filed the administrative complaint, the CRCL actually notes they were already planning an investigation in the Rio Grande Valley Sector (RGV), “where many of the joint complaint allegations occurred” (CRFO-80001-800174-1st Interim, page 107).
The complaints raise serious questions not just about the behavior of individual agents working in the Rio Grande Valley, but more broadly about the culture of the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector.
Here are just a few of the complaints:
M.V. is a 16-year-old boy who was apprehended near McAllen, Texas. While in CBP custody, M.V. was taken to a room where officials insulted M.V. and accused him of lying about his age. One official accused M.V. of possessing false documents, and threatened that if M.V. did not tell the truth about his age, he would “become the wife” of a male detainee. That official left the room, leaving M.V. alone with a male CBP official. That official directed M.V. to remove all of his clothes. M.V. remained undressed for approximately 15 minutes while the male official patted him down. The male official continued to interrogate M.V. about his age and laughed at M.V. while he was undressed. After the strip search, M.V. was directed to another waiting room where a third official told M.V. he would “pay” for being a liar. When M.V. was transferred to ORR custody, CBP officials handcuffed him in three-point restraints. M.V. was transported with other children who shared that they had also been strip-searched and questioned about their age. (CRCL Administrative Complaint Letter, page 9)
J.P. is a 13-year-old boy who was arrested with his 8-year-old sister near Hidalgo, Texas. J.P. and his sister were brought to a holding cell and then separated. J.P. spent three days in the first holding cell where he was detained with other adult men. He states that when he and other boys would cry, the officials would yell at them to stop because there was “no mother there” to comfort them. When J.P. tried to get a CBP official’s attention, the official threatened to hit him with a metal rod. The official then threatened the children not to tell anyone what had happened. After the third day, J.P. and his sister were brought to another holding facility. In the holding cell at this facility, J.P. was accosted by two adult men who told him they would “eat him up” while he slept. Other men in the cell warned J.P. to watch out for the two men because they liked “chubby boys.” Later, the two men J.P. had been warned about sexually molested him by touching his genitals after J.P. had fallen asleep. The men molested J.P. again the following night. J.P. repeatedly tried to report the abuse to CBP officials, but they ignored him. J.P. continues to feel afraid when he remembers what happened to him. (CRCL Administrative Complaint Letter, page 9-10)
J.R. is a 13-year-old boy who was apprehended near Brownsville, Texas. The officials who apprehended J.R. allowed their service canine to scratch his face, causing bleeding and impaired vision. When CBP took J.R. to a holding facility, they did not give him medical treatment for his wound and he only had an aluminum blanket to clean his face. (CRCL Administrative Complaint Letter, page 10)
J.R. also reported witnessing officials using a taser on a young boy, which is yet another common issue which many of the children’s complaints raise despite stated protocols limiting the use of tasers and which state personnel should not use tasers on young children.
In addition to physical and sexual abuse, a large percentage of the children detained in Rio Grande Valley also reported being routinely subject to verbal abuse. The verbal abuse which they report is not simply derogatory; it is also frequently misogynistic and explicitly xenophobic. G.G., who was a 16-year-old girl when Border Patrol agents detained her Texas, shared that agents “threatened to kill her if she moved or ran away” when they detained her. At the holding cell, she said, officials repeatedly told her, “You’re the garbage that contaminates this country” (CRCL Administrative Complaint Letter, page 11).
In Brownsville, at least two separate complaint forms pointed to one agent, often called “Mala Cara” or Bad Face by detained immigrants and children, who gained notoriety for his campaign of terror. In addition to reportedly insulting children by telling them they were “sluts,” Mala Cara, who the children describe as “bald, dark skin, always wears glasses,” was known for snatching children’s blankets while they attempted to sleep in the hieleras (CRFO-800175-800348-2nd Interim, pages 119-130).
The administrative complaint states that E.M., a 17-year-old child who fled Guatemala after she was raped and impregnated, was warned by other detainees of Mala Cara (CRCL Administrative Complaint Letter, page 11). Her individual complaint details that her first encounter with Mala Cara happened the first night of detention when an agent (who she later learned was Mala Cara) barged into the cell to read off the names of those detained. E.M. stated that she attempted to wake up the 6-year-old child that was next to her. When she was unable to, Mala Cara “pulled the blanket off of her [the 6-year-old child] and clapped his hands loudly in her ear. He then yelled at her to wake up and grabbed her by the arms and pulled her up into the air.”
E.M. stated she was frequently subject to Mala Cara’s verbal abuse. Whenever she attempted to push back against his insults, E.M. stated Mala Cara would shrug it off and tell her “that I was in his country and not mine and he could say whatever he wanted to me.”
E.M. tried to complain of Mala Cara’s behavior to other officials. In her individual complaint, she states that she approached a white agent who worked there who was “very nice.” E.M.’s complaint further elaborates that the white agent would “come in and tell us that we needed to eat while we could because he [Mala Cara] would not let us,” implying that other agents were aware of Mala Cara’s behavior and conduct. Approaching other agents for help, however, did not improve E.M.’s situation. After complaining of Mala Cara’s behavior with other agents, according to the CRCL administrative complaint, Mala Cara’s treatment worsened. Eventually, E.M. was transferred to another agency. When she was transferred, E.M. recalled Mala Cara telling her “We’re going to put you on a place and I hope it explodes. That would be the happiest day of my life” (CRCL Administrative Complaint Letter, Page 11).
Much of the behavior which the children describe also points to serious infringements upon children’s due process rights. One 14-year-old child, detained in Falfurrias, Texas, with an older sister, describes a grim Sophie’s Choice scenario in her complaint form. In her individual complaint form, the child indicates that after her sister refused to sign a deportation order, Border Patrol agents separated them and took the older sister to the room next door. The child, who stated she could hear “everything” Border Patrol agents were telling her because the older sister had been moved to a nearby cell over and the door was open, reported hearing agents tell her sister that if she did not sign the deportation order that they would be deported anyway but that they would make sure they were deported separately so that her younger sibling would be forced to be alone. Eventually, the child fell asleep. When she woke up, she said she saw her sister who was “still in the other room with glass window” and that “she [the sister] motioned at me through the window to let me know she had signed.” (CRFO-800175-800348-2nd Interim, page 92-93).
Throughout the documents, children raise some grievances so frequently that it almost appears as if the described conditions are standard or norm. One thing children often cite are freezing temperatures within detention. In fact, they typically refer to the cells as “hieleras” or freezers.
They also frequently point to cruel and unsanitary conditions within the detention centers. The children, many of whom said they were forced to sleep on cell floors, often describe overcrowded holding cells that are dangerously dirty. During a 2014 CRCL on-site visit, the CRCL observed “one station with ‘no trash receptacles…present in hold rooms” and “body fluids on the walls and floors, along with used sanitary napkins and used toilet paper containing feces on the floors, all of which cause a strong offensive odor throughout the processing area and should be considered as a health hazard’” (“Neglect and Abuse of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” pages 18-19). At least one child detained in Texas reported that the only drink water available to her came from the toilet tank in her holding cell (CRCL Administrative Complaint Letter, Page 11).
Medical neglect appears common practice as well, with many children reporting going by entire days without eating or, if fed, only being fed sporadically and even then frequently only being fed small quantities or rotten food. Predictably, many of the children got sick. Despite this, a majority of them reported not receiving any care or treatment. In one case, a 14-year-old child with asthma even reported having prescribed medication taken away from her (CRCL Administrative Letter, Page 26).
It isn’t the first time that civil and legal advocacy groups raise similar concerns. In 2009, the Florence Project released a similar report which was based on interviews with “124 unaccompanied children over a two-month period.” In 2011, No More Deaths (NMD) published a report which documented “more than 30,000 incidents of abuse of adult and child immigrants in short-term CBP custody.” In 2014, the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) published a Policy Brief which was based on interviews with “224 children over a three-week period.” Despite the hundreds of complaints filed with the CRCL and the OIG and the multitude of NGO reports written, not much appears to have changed; maltreatment and abuse appear to remain pattern and systemic. (CRCL Administrative Complaint Letter, pages 6-7)
One of the reasons abuse continues rampant may have something to do with the primary agency tasked with investigating serious abuse complaints: the CRCL. Although that CRCL’s power is limited to the issuing of non-binding recommendations, the ACLU has found that CRCL’s responses to serious child abuse are often “cursory and reflect a problematic overreliance on CBP’s own records (rather than independent assessments) to explore or verify specific allegations” (“Neglect and Abuse of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” page 33). To begin, CRCL’s own documents signal significant investigation delays. Further comprising investigations is CRCL’s investigative approach. According to the ACLU and the internal CRCL communications obtained, when an individual complaint is lodged, the “CRCL refers those complaints back to CBP— i.e., the very entity accused of misconduct— to resolve” (34). Whenever the CRCL is unable to verify complaints through CBP records or personnel accounts— which the CRCL admits in its own internal communications are often incomplete or inconsistent— it typically opts towards closing the case and stopping any further investigation.
In some instances, the CRCL appears to have accepted Rio Grande Valley complaints about freezing temperatures, dirty conditions, and other grievances generally to difficult to investigate and/or too routine to investigate.
The protocol states that children from non-contiguous countries (i.e. Mexico or Canada) are to be transferred from CBP to the Office of Refugee and Resettlement Services (ORR) of the Human Health and Human Services, an agency which is supposed to be better equipped for care of children, within seventy-two hours. In practice, it appears overstays happen frequently. Internal CRCL communications appear to indicate that as regards the Rio Grande Valley, officials view such overstays as typical.
Ultimately, almost nearly all complaints filed with the CRCL— a colleague agency, which like CBP and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), is housed under the Department of Homeland Security— result in “no action.”
Despite hundreds of advocate complaints and multiple reports, allegations of abuse continue. In August 2017, the American Immigration Council reported that of the 2,178 cases of alleged misconduct filed against Border Patrol agents and supervisors between January 2012 and October 2015, 95.9 percent of the cases resulted in “no action.” During this time period, only one case resulted in the firing of the agent. During this time period, the Rio Grande Valley led nationwide as the Border Patrol sector with the most complaints.
The picture that these documents and individual complaints paint is grim, especially when consideration is given to the fact that many children will not report abuse experienced due to fear of retaliation against them or potential negative consequences to their immigration cases.
It is also worth noting that the abuses cited above, including in some instances the separation of young children from parents and other family members, occurred during the Obama administration. During this time, a child who reported being insulted and harassed and witnessing officials hitting girls while detained in Harlingen, Texas, stated that she “felt like an animal” (CRCL Administrative Complaint Letter, page 18). Given the political climate created by the Trump administration, the implementation of harsher immigration criminalization and deportation measures, and the CRCL’s general seeming inability or unwillingness to hold Border Patrol accountable, it appears highly unlikely that the treatment of undocumented immigrants and unaccompanied children (who President Trump has previously referred to as an “animals” and “not innocent”) will improve.
Neta has reached out to Border Patrol to inquire about changes, if any, made since the 2014 CRCL complaint was filed. A response has yet to be provided.
Update: Daniel Hetlage, CBP Director of Media, responded to our inquiry via email, commenting that the ACLU’s report “equates allegations with fact” and “flatly ignores a number of improvements made by CBP as well as oversight conducted by outside, independent agencies, including the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties over the last decade.”
Hetlage also added commented that the Office of Inspector General (OIG), which like CBP and the CRCL is a sub-agency housed within DHS, “completed an investigation and found these claims unsubstantiated and did not observe misconduct or inappropriate conduct.” According to Hetlage, the OIG conducted 57 “unannounced visits” to 41 CBP facilities and “did not observed miscount or inappropriate conduct by DHS employees” during this time.
Hetlage also included links to previous CBP publications and statements, including an OIG letter which stated that only 16 of the 116 of the allegations brought forward by the ACLU had been fully investigated.
On May 31, 218, the ACLU responded to CBP’s allegations that its claims were unfounded by re-emphasizing the claim made in the report that the CRCL and the OIG “lack sufficient authority and routinely fail to undertake independent, timely, or robust investigations.” As a result of this, the ACLU stated, “‘oversight” agencies routinely close investigations without rigorous, thorough review,” ensuring that ” ‘allegations’ inevitably remain ‘unfounded.’ ”
Additionally, the ACLU also pointed out that “unannounced” visits the CBP cites occurred only after the 2014 administrative complaint with the CRCL and the OIG was filed and “months after the children referenced in the complaint had already been released.” The ACLU also criticized a decision made by the OIG in the Fall of 2014, when it “announced that it would no longer conduct site inspections, without explaining why.” In June 2015, almost a year after the administrative complaint, a coalition of immigrants’ rights advocates filed a class lawsuit challenging CBP detention conditions.
In its statement, the ACLU response also responds to CBP claims about policies and changes it claims to have instituted. The ACLU added int its response that it would “publish the next set of records, which include audio files of CBP officials subjecting children to coercive and abusive interviews” at the end of June.