More than 30,000 documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) serve as the base for their report on a pattern of mistreatment and abuse of unaccompanied minors by border patrol agents between 2009 and 2014. Most of these young people were seeking asylum in the United States to escape what they felt was eminent danger and threats to their lives and well-being. What they found when they arrived at the US border was not the safe haven they had hoped for.
For the ACLU, obtaining these documents was not easy. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was ignored and it took a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to get the documents that show the pattern and extent of abuse of these vulnerable young people.
One quarter of the children interviewed reported cases of physical abuse, including sexual assault, and more than half reported verbal abuse including death threats, per the report. Half of the children interviewed also said they were denied medical care, while 80 percent reported inadequate provisions of food and water.
The cases highlighted by the ACLU include a 16-year-old who said a Border Patrol agent smashed his head on the ground with his boot, and a handcuffed 15-year-old who was punched in the mouth by a Border Patrol agent and then denied medical care. Several other minors reported being hit with stun guns, though they were not resisting arrest.
“At best, this abuse amounts to unprofessional, degrading mistreatment of vulnerable minors. At worst, the abuse amounts to unlawful and potentially criminal misconduct by federal immigration officials,” the report says.
Sexual abuse by the Department of US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is also cited in these documents. “We saw so many reports of physical abuse, both violent and humiliating,” said Nabihah Maqbool, a University of Chicago Law School student who helped compile the report. Maqbool cited claims of minors being forced to sign voluntary deportation orders under the threat of rape or injury and of being denied medical care.
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CBP has sought to discredit this report.
CBP officials called the organization’s conclusions “unfounded and baseless,” noting that most of the claims cited in the report were ruled unfounded by DHS.
“These allegations were investigated and dismissed by the Office of the Inspector General for a reason,” DHS spokesman Katie Waldman said. “Packaging dozens of patently baseless allegations and calling it a ‘report’ does not change the fact it is just a collection of patently baseless allegations.”
The report ignores improvements in oversight made since 2014, including stricter guidelines on use of force and a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse, CBP said. It also disregards the fact that the DHS inspector general’s office, responding to previous complaints of abuse, conducted unannounced visits to 41 CBP facilities in 2014 and found no improprieties, the agency said.
“CBP takes seriously all allegations of misconduct, but without new specifics is unable commence reasonable steps to examine these assertions and address the accusations levied,” Dan Hetlage, a CBP spokesman, said in a statement.
What is most troubling about this report is that it illustrates a pattern of abuse by those in power over undocumented minors that has been ingrained in the federal immigration bureaucracy, well before the Trump administration came on the scene. Stories like this one in April about federal customs officials abusing people trying to cross the border are not as new as some might like to believe.—Carole Levine