Abuses on the Border

AP Photo/Eric Gay

In this Tuesday, September 15, 2015, photo U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents patrol along the border fence in Hidalgo, Texas.

Amanda Rodríguez Varela, who lives in Ciudad Juarez just south of El Paso, Texas, is fearful that her husband will find out that officials at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) have concluded that she’s a prostitute.

The 51-year-old wife and mother’s ordeal began last September, when CBP officers grilled her as she crossed the border from Juarez to El Paso to shop at Walmart. “I don’t know why they decided I was a prostitute,” Varela told the Prospect in Spanish. “It seemed very arbitrary.”

As Varela tells it, CBP agents called her a puta, or whore, and asked her if she had syphilis or gonorrhea. After about an hour, the officials let her cross, but a month later, she was detained once again. This time, she faced almost ten grueling hours of detention and interrogation. The agents fingerprinted her and searched her body, she says. An officer named Quintanas (she only remembers his last name) mocked her work as a women’s rights advocate.

“I was just crying and praying,” Varela recalled recently during an interview. “They left me in a room for hours with just a little bottle of water. I was afraid I was going to go to prison. I was so scared that I didn’t even think to tell them that my brother’s an American citizen.”

It was the officers’ explicit threat to send her to prison for a year that got her to sign a piece of paper shoved in front of her during one of her grillings. It was written in English, she says. Another officer, who seemed to her more sympathetic, told her that signing the document was no big deal, and would allow her to go on her way.

But according to a complaint filed last week with the Department of Homeland Security by the New Mexico branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, Rodríguez Varela would only learn later that “CBP officers appended documents to the form containing fabricated admissions of prostitution and a false transcript of an interrogation between her and a CBP officer.” The document she’d signed led to the revocation of her visa, and barred her from entering the U.S. for five years. She has told her sons and co-workers about her experience, but she doesn’t know how her husband will react. “He’s a jealous man,” she says.

Rodríguez Varela is just one of many residents of communities across the Southwest who say that they’re facing indignities large and small at the hands of a massive, highly militarized police force that’s largely unaccountable to the people it supposedly serves and protects. The complaints come in the wake of massive federal spending for border security, which Congress has increased by literally 1,450 percent over the past two decades. Complaints of racial profiling, physical and verbal abuse, and a sharp rise in shooting incidents have fallen on deaf ears, according to civil liberties advocates and local activists interviewed by the Prospect.

Rodríguez Varela’s case is one of 13 horror stories described in the New Mexico ACLU’s report, which details CBP officers “use of excessive force, verbal abuse, humiliating searches, and intimidation to coerce individuals into surrendering their legal rights” at ports of entry in Texas and New Mexico. The trouble is surfacing along an increasingly militarized southern border that runs directly through very old transnational communities, where generations of local residents have crossed back and forth between Mexico and the United States to work, shop, attend school, and visit family and friends.

Both Mexicans and U.S. citizens say they’ve faced abusive treatment by CBP officers, but it’s clear that their experiences differ from those of Mexican nationals. Pamela Morales, a 26-year-old U.S. citizen who lives in Ciudad Juarez and works in El Paso, recounts being harassed for an hour by CPB agents after she looked at her cell phone to see if she could get a signal in an area where the use of cell phones had just been prohibited. When she tried to file a complaint about what she saw as unacceptable behavior by one agent, his supervisor warned her that he would file a complaint against her in turn.

A week later, she says, CBP agents retaliated by confiscating her FAST pass, an ID card that facilitates frequent border crossings. Morales was angry, but her Mexican friends and family expressed more shock at her behavior than at the agents’. “When I told them that I had complained, they couldn’t believe it,” she tells the Prospect. “Mexicans know that when dealing with the CBP, you turn your eyes away from the agent and you do exactly what they say. They couldn’t believe that I’d had the nerve to ask for an agent’s name in order to file a complaint.”

John-Michael Torres, communications coordinator for La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), an advocacy group in the Rio Grande Valley, tells the Prospect,We were at ground zero for the child refugee crisis, and I spoke with people who had faced violence and hunger and abusive coyotes, who had risked their lives traveling hundreds of miles, and they told me that their detention by Customs and Border Protection was the worst part of the whole experience. That really tells you something.”

But activists in Texas, New Mexico, and California say that the problem is driven by conservative politicians’ incessant calls to “secure the border,” and it extends far beyond the realm of border crossings. Despite the fact that interior immigration enforcement is the primary jurisdiction of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, a 70-year-old statute gives CBP agents expansive authority to set up check points and interrogate travelers within 100 air-miles of a border—a zone that the ACLU estimates to include about two-thirds of the country.

Within 25 miles of a border, agents can enter private property, excluding private dwellings, without a warrant. It’s not a “Constitution-free zone,” exactly. But, according to the ACLU: “Border Patrol agents routinely ignore or misunderstand the limits of their legal authority, violating the constitutional rights of innocent people,” including American citizens.

New Mexico’s ACLU field organizer, Cynthia Pompa, tells the Prospect: “Here in New Mexico, we have six interior checkpoints. Any direction you’re traveling—north, south, whatever—you’ll be stopped at a checkpoint where you can be detained, searched and interrogated. These policies were put in place in response to immigration, but in the end they end up affecting border communities. We often feel that the rest of the country forgets that people are living here, inside the U.S.”

In this 100-mile buffer zone, racial profiling by Border Patrol agents is a common complaint. Pedro Rios, the Sand Diego program director for the American Friends Service Committee, tells the Prospect that while his agency gets plenty of complaints from American citizens, they’re almost always Hispanic. “There’s a better chance that they’ll be mistreated than an undocumented Irishman walking down the street,” he says. “He won’t get hassled because of the assumption, based on the color of his skin, that he belongs in this country.”

A toxic mix of factors has fueled this massive, quasi-military build-up along the southern border. They include Washington’s failure to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, despite ten years of trying; mounting anti-immigrant rhetoric among elected officials; and lobbying by defense contractors who have looked to the border as a growing revenue stream to compensate for declining military spending as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.

The U.S. now spends $18 billion annually on an alphabet soup of immigration enforcement agencies. In 2012, a report by the Migration Policy Institute estimated that immigration-related law enforcement was “approximately 24 percent higher than collective spending for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.” According to a 2007 analysis by The Washington Post, ICE “holds more inmates a night than Clarion hotels have guests, operates nearly as many vehicles as Greyhound has buses and flies more people each day than do many small U.S. airlines.”

The number of Border Patrol agents along the southern border rose from fewer than 3,500 in 1993 to over 18,500 in 2012, and lawmakers continue to call for more bodies. CBP has also increased the number of agents manning its border checkpoints to an all-time high of over 22,000.

Border activists say that Border Patrol’s mandate to rapidly staff up has contributed to the problems they’re seeing. “The problem with this massive, too-quick hiring process is that they’ve really weakened the training process for agents,” says Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights. “We’ve seen them rush [cadets] through the academy to get them into the field to fulfill the quotas for new agents set by Congress. As the quality of the training has gone down, we’ve seen a big increase in abuses, including the use of lethal force. And we’ve also seen a number of cases where it’s been extremely clear that the agents didn’t know what the law is when it comes to civil rights and human rights.”

Garcia notes that many of the agency’s newer hires are vets returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than retraining them for civilian law enforcement, Garcia says that there’s “an institutional pattern of training these agents to think that they’re going into a warzone, where they’ll be surrounded by enemies. And with that mentality they go out and interact with the community and we see a lot of inappropriate enforcement.”

The most troubling incidents have involved a spate of shootings by Border Patrol Agents. Some individuals have been shot trying to cross the border, but others were not. Guillermo Arévalo Pedroza, a construction worker, was shot dead in 2012 during a family picnic on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande River. He bled to death in his nine-year-old daughter’s arms, according to media reports. Juan Pablo Perez Santillan, 30, left eight children behind when a Border Patrol marksman shot him at least five times with a high-powered rifle in 2012. Officials say Perez Santillan was acting as a lookout for a group of undocumented immigrants swimming across the Rio Grande; his family members say he was collecting firewood. Everyone agrees the victim was unarmed. According to the Texas Observer, one of the agents yelled: “Que se muera el perro,” which translates to “let the dog die,” as Santillan’s brother called out for medical assistance.

Most of these shootings have gone unpunished. The first-ever indictment of a Border Patrol agent for a cross-border shooting was handed down just last year. In 2012, prosecutors say agent Lonnie Ray Swartz stuck his .40 caliber handgun through a space in the border fence and shot 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez ten times—eight times in the back—as he stood on a street in Nogales, Mexico. The agent claimed self-defense—some teenagers, possibly including Rodriguez, had been throwing rocks from a nearby embankment. But when NPR’s John Burnett visited the spot where the teen fell, he concluded that it was “a wonder how Swartz could have felt threatened by rock-throwers … they would have to throw their projectiles 40 to 50 feet up in the air to clear the top of the fence, and the rocks would have to drop straight down to harm an agent standing on the other side. Or they would have to aim their rocks to fly through the 3.5-inch gaps between the iron bars.” Swartz is still awaiting trial for the incident.

Not only have indictments been rare, most of these incidents haven’t even resulted in internal disciplinary actions. In 2013, an internal CBP review of 67 Border Patrol shootings that left 19 people dead found that the agency had absolved agents of wrongdoing in all but three of the cases, which were still pending at the time.

Chuck Wexler, the executive director of a private think tank known as the Police Executive Research Forum, which conducted the review, tells the Prospect that his team “provided CBP with a comprehensive set of recommendations on use-of-force policies and training, designed to prevent unnecessary uses of force and encourage de-escalation strategies.” He said the agency “deserves credit for taking our recommendations to heart, undertaking an overhaul of the agency’s policies, and writing an entirely new use-of-force handbook.”

And last year, two House members from the border region, Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke and New Mexico Republican Stevan Pearce, introduced legislation—the Border Enforcement Accountability, Oversight, and Community Engagement Act of 2015—that would, among other things, mandate improved training and new oversight mechanisms for the agencies that police the border.

The bill faces an uphill climb in this Congress, meaning that little is likely to change for Border Patrol agents. That agents’ sense that they won’t be held accountable for their actions—from verbal abuse at border crossings to shootings— lies at the heart of these problems, say civil rights advocates.

“We know that the complaints that are submitted don’t go anywhere,” says John-Michael Torres, LUPE’s communications coordinator. “That’s true even in cases of egregious abuses of power, when Border Patrol agents have taken the lives of community members. And when the community sees that there’s no action taken against agents for physical violence, it just sends a message that these other abuses that go along with interacting with Border Patrol—verbal abuse, treating innocent people like criminals—why even bother?”

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, in the meantime, continues to call for a massive fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, a proposal that in some ways is just the logical extension of chronic harping by GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill on the need to secure the border. As Isabel Garcia, co-chair of the Tucson-based Coalición de Derechos Humanos, puts it: “People don’t have any idea of what ‘securing the border’ looks like. There’s no accountability for the largest police force in this country, which is almost exclusively dedicated to policing communities of color.”

Adds Garcia: “What’s out of control is not the border. It’s the Border Patrol that’s out of control.”

This article has been updated. 

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