After images of Border Patrol agents on horseback aggressively swinging lariats at and chasing Black migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border shocked the public in September, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was quick to promise a "swift investigation" to be "completed in days – not weeks."
"Any mistreatment or abuse of a migrant is unacceptable, is against Border Patrol policy, training and our department's values," he said. "We know how to conduct an independent investigation." More than a month later, investigators have just started questioning the agents from the viral video. And many witnesses are out of reach as the Biden administration sought to clear the Del Rio camp as quickly as possible, in part by illegally expelling thousands of Haitian asylum seekers.
Just days after Mayorkas and other Biden administration officials sought to portray the events of Del Rio as a one-off, Human Rights Watch received a long-awaited piece of mail from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—the results of a Freedom of Information Act request originally filed six years ago. The contents are consistent with longstanding reports of widespread Customs and Border Protection (CBP) abuse and misconduct—some of which rises to the level of criminal.
The documents we received contained more than 160 complaints made internally at DHS by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers, including allegations of sexual assault, physical violence, verbal abuse and other dehumanizing treatment of asylum applicants. The internal reports span parts of the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations.
According to the internal reports, a U.S. Border Patrol agent kneed a woman in the lower pelvis, leaving bruises and pain days later. Another officer knocked an asylum applicant unconscious who suffered brain swelling. An officer wearing a green uniform, consistent with those of the Border Patrol, tried to coerce a different asylum applicant into giving him oral sex in exchange for being released from custody. In another reported incident, a Border Patrol agent or Customs and Border Protection officer forced a girl to undress and touched her inappropriately.
Another asylum applicant was bitten in the testicle by a Border Patrol service dog, denied medical treatment for over a month, and the complaint stated, ultimately had to have his testicle surgically removed. CBP officials appeared to withhold food from a different man in a freezing cold holding facility until he agreed to sign a paper in a language he did not understand.
Since our report, evidence continues to accumulate that internal investigations and disciplinary mechanisms at Customs and Border Protection are broken. In late October, the House Oversight Committee released the results of its investigation into CBP's response to a private Border Patrol Facebook group where violently racist and sexist memes were shared. The agency's own disciplinary board recommended firing 24 employees for violating the agency's code of conduct. Only two were fired.
New allegations detailed in a letter the Southern Border Communities Coalition sent to members of Congress in late October about CBP's Critical Incident Investigative Teams (or just Critical Incident Teams)—units that aim to investigate use-of-force incidents to "[preserve and protect] the integrity of the Border Patrol and its personnel"—raises further concerns. Critical Incident Teams have previously been accused of being involved in cover-ups of abuse. The letter includes information linking Critical Incident Teams to the destruction of evidence, dispersing witnesses and obstruction of outside law enforcement investigations in California and Arizona.
Customs and Border Protection has shown time and again that it cannot be trusted to investigate itself. Border crossers and border communities alike need meaningful oversight of border agents.
By failing to hold its Border Patrol agents accountable and to acknowledge its own role of trapping thousands of asylum seekers in squalid and ill-resourced encampments along the border as part of its continued use of discriminatory and illegal border policies, this administration risks having this define the United States. If they want to prove otherwise, Biden and Mayorkas need to acknowledge the problems head on and do the real work of addressing the root causes of border abuses with impunity.
The Biden administration should work with Congress, the Department of Justice and external stakeholders, especially those that are Black-led, to ensure meaningful oversight and accountability of border agents, both by reinvestigating past cases and in allegations of abuse or misconduct going forward. And it should immediately end its abusive and dangerous anti-asylum policies at the border.