According to a new report released this week, the U.S. Border Patrol, one of the largest federal law enforcement bodies in the country, and its agents are consistently mistreating, abusing and violating the human rights of immigrant detainees in its custody.
The report, A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-Term U.S. Border Patrol Custody, was issued by the Tucson, Ariz.-based human rights group No More Deaths and its partner organizations.
Nearly 13,000 former detainees were interviewed for the report, which details more than 30,000 accounts of personal abuse. Those include severe dehydration and deprivation of water; people with life-threatening medical conditions being denied treatment; children and adults that were beaten during apprehensions and while in custody; being crammed into cells and subjected to extreme temperatures; deprivation of sleep; subjection to humiliation and other forms of psychological abuse. Other abuses include detention and repeated separation of family members and confiscation of personal belongings - money, cell phones and identification cards.
One interview involved a 54-year-old man who had lived in Los Angeles for 35 years. Border Patrol detained him in 2010, as he tried to return home after visiting his ailing mother in Mexico. He suffered a back injury when the Border Patrol vehicle transporting him flipped over. After hospital treatment, he was deported and eventually died in Mexico after his medication ran out.
"What we've found is clearly not the result of few 'bad apples,'" said Danielle Alvarado, a volunteer with No More Deaths and co-author of the report. "We continue to hear the same stories from thousands of people, released from different Border Patrol stations, year after year. They are alarmingly consistent."
Alvarado notes the practices as highlighted in the report constitute torture under international law.
"Absolutely no one is taking responsibility for the patterns of abuse that persist," she said. "We have filed dozens of complaints and not one has produced any change. This is just one more way the Obama administration's flawed approach to enforcement has undermined his credibility with immigrant communities. It's an affront to our collective sense of justice, fairness and equality."
Authors of the report claim the overwhelming weight of the corroborated evidence should eliminate any doubt that Border Patrol abuse is widespread. However the Border Patrol's consistent response has been flat denial, and calls for reform have been ignored, they add.
The findings indicate the ongoing abuse, neglect and dehumanization of migrants as part of the institutional culture of the Border patrol system, authors say. These practices are reinforced by an absence of meaningful accountability mechanisms.
"This systemic abuse must be confronted aggressively at the institutional level, not denied or dismissed as a series of aberrational incidents attributable to a few rouge agents," says the report. "Until then we can expect this culture of cruelty to continue to deprive individuals in Border Patrol custody of their most fundamental human rights."
One interview tells the story of Jorge, 27, from Guatemala. He explains how six Border Patrol agents, including some on horses and motorcycles, surrounded his group of ten people. He was thrown onto the ground face first, and an agent hit him on the side with the butt of his gun while other agents yelled insults. When he repeatedly asked to see a doctor, he was denied. The agents threw out any food the detainees had and provided none even when it was requested. And over the course of three days they received only packets of crackers. Jorge says he now suffers from chronic stomach pain as a result of going so long without eating. He says his belongings, including his birth certificate and $100 U.S. dollars, were confiscated and never returned. Jorge lived in Santa Monica, Calif., for 10 years before being deported.
From over 100 interviews, the average length of time living in the U.S. before deportation was 14.4 years. Interviewees had, on average, 2.5 children in the U.S., and 46.6 percent reported that all of their children living in the U.S. were U.S. citizens.
While the Department of Homeland Security must improve its ability to hold its own employees accountable, the reports suggests there is a need for an independent body charged with certain responsibilities.
Those include investigating complaints filed directly or by a third party; monitoring the implementation of standards in short-term facilities; imposing disciplinary sanctions on Border Patrol agents who commit egregious and repeat abuses; providing restitution to victims; and tracking, analyzing and publicly reporting on aggregate information drawn from complaints, their resolutions and facility ratings.
The report concludes, "Indifference to the persistent institutional violence of the Border Patrol reflects a lack of ethical leadership and responsibility on the part of the federal government and is indefensible in light of the United State's longstanding commitment to human rights, justice, accountability and the rule of law."
Photo: Border Patrol agents often use a tactic of rushing at people on horseback or flying low in helicopters ("dusting") to scatter migrants encountered in the desert. This causes injuries to migrants attempting to get out of harm's way. Those who aren't apprehended are often left behind in the desert. Courtesy of Culture of Cruelty website.