Immigration & Labor

New Study: No Accountability for Abuse at the Border

On May 31, 2014, four years will have passed since the death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas. Hernandez Rojas was badly beaten by Border Patrol agents during an attempt to deport him at the US-Mexico border. A Taser was also used to allegedly subdue Hernandez Rojas — even though he was handcuffed, hogtied, and prone when he was Tased five separate times. Rojas died several days later as a result of his injuries, and the coroner determined his death to be a homicide. To date, no Border Patrol agent has been indicted for the death of Hernandez Rojas. Members of Congress have written to the Department of Homeland Security asking for an investigation.  Almost two years have passed since a grand jury was convened to look into the matter — yet their findings have yet to be made public.  A call to the Department of Justice asking about the case is met with the standard response: “The case is currently under investigation.”

Over the past few years, I have investigated accusations of excessive use of force by US Border Patrol agents. I have looked into incidents in which agents have shot and killed migrants. I have listened to testimony from migrants who say they have been tortured or sexually assaulted by agents; the complaints are numerous and repetitive along the entire 2,000 mile US-Mexico border. The consistent thread that runs through the vast majority of cases I have investigated is that Border Patrol agents appear to be immune to repercussions, let alone prosecution. Out of the hundreds of stories of abuse and even death, I have not found one case in which a Border Patrol agent has been indicted for abusive use of force — nor have found any public information available about a formal reprimand.

Last week the American Immigration Council released its study about abuse complaints at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), one of the largest law enforcement agencies in America. Not surprising to me, the study revealed that out of over 800 complaints only 13 resulted in disciplinary action — and even in these cases, the most common response involved counseling for agents. The complaints varied from migrants being kicked and stomped after being detained, to being struck on the head with a flashlight, to verbal abuse and sexual assault. Many of the migrants I've spoken to never realized they could file a complaint nor were they ever given that option. In many cases, if they were to file a formal complaint, they would have to file it with the perpetrators themselves. With the vast majority of migrants not able to file formal complaints, the 800 or so in this study represent only a proportion of the larger abuses perpetrated by Border Patrol agents. But the lack of accountability is accurate.

More alarming, the American Immigration Council had to sue in order to receive the data. Several years ago, The Investigative Fund filed Freedom of Information Act requests for similar data but received none of the requested information. A federal law enforcement agency, funded by taxpayer dollars, has become immune to public scrutiny. The oversight body that governs procedure, protocol, and reprimand is the Department of Homeland Security, the very organization that the Border Patrol belongs to. The fox is not only guarding the hen house but the entire farm.

It's common for big city law enforcement agencies across the country to publish protocol on their websites — and for citizens to oversee allegations of misconduct. Most have a strict reprimand structure designed to keep corruption to a minimum. The Border Patrol does none of that: procedures and training are kept secret from the public, and investigations are sealed. Findings are guarded from the public for the purposes of maintaining “national security.” When institutions lack transparency, there's usually something to hide. The more I investigate the Border Patrol, the more I find that to be the case. It is increasingly disturbing that other organizations and journalists are corroborating my original findings of abuse within the ranks of the US Border Patrol, discovered years ago.  Allowing law enforcement to remain unaccountable is a recipe for disaster.

John Carlos Frey is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

About the reporter

John Carlos Frey

John Carlos Frey

John Carlos Frey is an investigative reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles.