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ProPublica Sheds Light on the Origins of Border Patrol’s Corruption, Abuse, and Lack of Accountability

 

Reports of alleged Border Patrol and ICE misconduct have surfaced with almost regular occurrence over many years. DHS Watch has cataloged some of these reports here, here, and here.

On Monday, ProPublica published an insightful and historical explanation of the origins of serious allegations of abuse, corruption, and lack of accountability plaguing the Border Patrol for decades. ProPublica describes a group of Border Patrol agents — that some called the “Douglas mafia” — beginning their careers in Douglas, Arizona in the 1990s when the Border Patrol was a fraction of its current size. Through the years, according to ProPublica, these agents presided over an agency that grew too fast even under perfect conditions, but much worse given endemic issues that Border Patrol leadership preferred to sweep under the rug.  

ProPublica explains,

By 2016, and for the first time in its more than 90-year history, the agency was on its way to reform and some transparency, adopting many of the changes proposed by the panel of [reform] experts and significantly reducing its lethal encounters.

But then President Donald Trump was elected, thrusting new powers and responsibilities on the agency, but also fresh controversy. Members of the Douglas group took on key new roles as one top border security official after another was appointed, then vanquished by Trump.

On top of the endemic issues flourishing under the Trump administration as described by ProPublica and multiple other media sources, CNN reports that Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the parent agency of the Border Patrol, “is now considered a ‘security agency,’ a move that allows the agency to shield information about personnel from the public,” at a time when CBP needs more transparency and accountability.     

Sweeping agent abuse of authority and criminal violations under the rug

According to ProPublica’s interviews with various Border Patrol agents, in the 1990s and beyond,

…the agents, including those who would come to be the Douglas mafia, saw firsthand many of the problems that would plague the agency in coming years.

One night in late September 2000, [Border Patrol agent] Goldhamer noticed an acting supervisor named Dennis Johnson talking with a Salvadoran woman they’d just apprehended. With several people to process for the return to Mexico, Goldhamer lost sight of them, according to court records. Johnson drove the handcuffed woman into the desert and sexually assaulted her. Then he took her to another port of entry at Naco, 25 miles west of Douglas, and sent her back to Mexico.

This serious incident of agent misconduct was not discovered because of processes in place to prevent such incidents or monitor them. Instead, “The assault was only discovered because the woman made a complaint to a Mexican customs agent who then reported it to his U.S. counterpart, the court records show.”  And, Border Patrol Agent Goldhamer, “retired quietly last spring [2019] as associate chief in charge of national policy after her role in the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, which resulted in thousands of children being separated from their families with no plan to reunify them.”

No disciplinary action even when reports of corruption are substantiated by government watchdogs

Even when an internal government watchdog substantiates reports of corruption, the Border Patrol has failed to take disciplinary action, according to ProPublica.

In 2001, the Justice Department’s inspector general opened an investigation into a sprawling kickback scheme in which numerous agents detailed to Douglas from other stations were furnished with falsified receipts from supervisors, who’d rented them rooms in their homes, or from hotel managers or apartment landlords. 

In its final report in 2002, the inspector general said it found “troubling practices” on the part of several agents. The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to prosecute, and the cases were referred to internal affairs at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (then the parent agency of Border Patrol) for disciplinary action.

Nearly a year later no action had been taken. 

When the Border Patrol was subsumed into the newly created Department of Homeland Security and the independent federal Office of Special Counsel reviewed the matter and “released a scathing report,” again no action was taken. Instead, the agents who made the allegations eventually left the agency.   

Mistreatment of women agents

According to ProPublica, when a young, ambitious woman joined the ranks of the Border Patrol, her supervisor asked her out on a date.  After refusing the date, a friend of the young agent said, “from that day on she was targeted. She’d be written up for any little thing…She went through the proper chain of command. She called the right people, but nobody did anything to help her.”  According to ProPublica’s interview with the agent’s friend, the pressure mounted so much until the young agent committed suicide. When the agent’s father asked for personnel records and an investigation into his daughter’s suicide, he was stonewalled. Meanwhile, the supervisor was promoted and today is “assistant chief in charge of foreign operations in Washington, D.C., and in the highest levels of Border Patrol leadership.” 

Burying critical reports

According to ProPublica, “By 2012, it was clear that the Border Patrol had other serious problems. Excessive use of force and corruption were on the rise” and,

Under pressure from Congress, [Border Patrol Chief] Aguilar requested that the Police Executive Research Forum [PERF], a Washington, D.C.-based law enforcement think tank, examine the Border Patrol’s use-of-force policies. PERF looked at 67 cases of lethal force and found instances where agents shot at vehicles and unarmed suspects that were not an immediate threat. Their findings were unequivocal: “Too many cases do not appear to meet the test of objective reasonableness with regard to the use of deadly force.”

Instead of releasing the critical PERF report, CBP fought to keep it secret, even from Congress, releasing only a summary after legislators and civil rights groups demanded to see the full report. Unlike other law enforcement agencies, the Border Patrol also refused to make its use-of-force policies or the names of its agents involved in fatal shooting investigations public, saying the information was “law enforcement sensitive.”

Latest reports of DHS negligence and abuse

Over the last week, multiple allegations of CBP and ICE abuse and negligence have surfaced.  The Department of Homeland Security is the parent agency of ICE and CBP, and CBP is the parent agency of the Border Patrol. 

  • ICE detainee mistreatmentNPR released a 2017 video of detention officers using excessive force against detainees who were protesting discrimination, restricted access to clean water, high bonds, and receiving information only in English. According to NPR, the detention officers “sprayed pepper spray at the men at least three times and forcibly removed them from the tables” where they were protesting. Some detainees were “pushed into the walls, pulled to the ground or dragged on the floor by guards.” The detainees were placed in hot showers after being pepper sprayed which worsens the burning effect, as noted in the DHS report of the incident. The detainees who participated in the protest were then sent to solitary confinement for 10 days for “engaging in or inciting a group demonstration.” This incident is not isolated, according to NPR who obtained and examined hundreds of detainee grievances under the Freedom of Information Act. 
  • Poor medical care for children in custody:  According to the family and advocates of a 5-year-old Guatemalan boy detained at the Dilley Family Detention Center, the Associated Press reports, that proper treatment was denied for the young boy’s head injury despite headaches and hearing issues. This is the same ICE facility that detained Yazmin Juarez and her 1-year-old child Mariee who, according to the Associated Press, “contracted a respiratory illness that was misdiagnosed and mistreated at Dilley [and led to her death weeks later].”
  • U.S. citizen dies in custody:  On February 4, 2020, the New York Times reported that a 32-year-old U.S. citizen was detained and soon after his arrest, “began exhibiting signs of distress” which led to his hospitalization. He passed away a few hours later.
  • Inappropriate use of force:  Last week, outside of ICE detention facilities, ICE officers shot a man in the face during his arrest in Brooklyn, according to the New York Times. “The shooting comes amid an escalating dispute between the administration of President Donald Trump and New York City over its sanctuary policies. ICE has expressed frustration in recent weeks that the city does not honor the vast majority of its detainer requests,” the New York Times notes.