Longform

Cloaked Brutality: The Feds Bury Border Patrol Abuses of Immigrants, But What's Been Unearthed Reveals a Culture of Cruelty

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Almost none of the immigrants were aware that while they were in the United States, they were entitled to the most of the same constitutional rights as Americans — rights that are supposed to protect them from mistreatment.

For example, federal law (18 USC 242) decrees that law enforcement officers cannot subject illegal immigrants to "different punishments, pains, or penalties" than those they can use legally against U.S. citizens.

Further, the Fourth Amendment affords immigrants protection from excessive and unreasonable force by law enforcement, and the Fifth Amendment decrees that they cannot be harmed while in custody or lose their liberty without due process of law.

"When we're talking about the U.S. Constitution, about civil rights and human rights, we need to apply these to all people in this country, regardless of their immigration status. Otherwise, we're jeopardizing our very basic constitutional rights," said Victoria Lopez, immigrant rights advocate with the ACLU of Arizona.

"We all have a responsibility to defend these rights that we cherish, that we think are so important as Americans. If we don't, then we erode our own system of protection."


Despite U.S. Customs and Border Protection's secrecy about agent training — and the notion that admittedly unfit agents are hired because polygraph examinations no longer are standard — Border Patrol officials insist that agents know the law.

They insist that agents know it is illegal to slam a baton into an immigrant's abdomen without any legitimate law enforcement reason and that they know what reasons are legitimate.

They insist that agents know it is a violation of illegal immigrants' constitutional rights to angrily abuse them as punishment for trying to escape.

As part of a 55-day training program to ready agents for the demands of the job, officials say, agents are schooled about the civil rights of the people they will encounter during hours of patrols across expansive stretches of borderland. But they refuse to detail how much course work is devoted to training agents about how to preserve the civil rights of immigrants.

The Border Patrol is part of Customs and Border Protection, the largest uniformed police force in the nation, with more than 40,000 agents. The Border Patrol alone already has seen its ranks double from 10,045 in fiscal year 2002 to 20,119 in '09 — with 2,200 more agents on the way. CBP's budget nearly tripled over the past seven years — growing from $5.9 billion in fiscal year 2003 to $17.2 billion in 2010.

As CBP continues to grow, officials contend they are committed to fostering a culture of integrity among agents.

But Pedro Rios, a border activist with American Friends Service Committee, said a big part of the agency's problem is that there is little top-down monitoring of agents' hiring and behavior on the job.

The limited polygraph testing is a serious problem, he and other activists stress.

James Tomsheck, of the CBP's Office of Internal Affairs, admitted to lawmakers during the congressional hearing "that many of those persons hired during CBP's hiring initiatives . . . may very well have entered into our workforce despite the fact that they were unsuitable."

In other words, many agents responsible for protecting America's borders would not have made it past the polygraph — which is standard for recruits at reputable law enforcement agencies across the country.

Border Patrol brochures tout starting pay for agents of up to $50,000 a year, health coverage for which the federal government picks up 75 percent of premiums, and a retirement plan. In return, the agency requires that prospective employees be U.S. citizens, have a driver's license, and pass vision, hearing, and physical-agility tests.

Jumping into higher-paid posts requires a college degree or general work experience — including experience as seemingly unrelated to law enforcement as "customer-service representative."

New Times could not measure how Border Patrol agents' meager qualifications and training may have translated into abuses of immigrants.

Customs and Border Protection spokesman Steve Cribby in Washington would not provide — despite a barrage of requests — information about the number or nature of complaints filed against agents, or about how many were disciplined for mistreating immigrants.

And though agents' jobs are defined by their encounters with illegal immigrants, Cribby said Border Patrol officials do not "track whether the source of a complaint is an illegal alien."

Attempting to extract public information from the agency is a maddening endeavor, but once a serious instance of abuse by an agent surfaces in, say, the news media, federal officials are quick to publicly repudiate the behavior.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez said in a June press release that he and federal leaders "place a great deal of trust in our federal law enforcement officials, and . . . will aggressively prosecute any officer who violates the rights of others and abuses the power they are given."

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo