Report paints picture of rampant human rights abuses from US border agents

A report from two human rights nonprofits claims that U.S. border patrol agents frequently treat migrants poorly and that Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the county’s largest law enforcement agency, has systemic problems.

“(CBP) has a persistent problem of human rights abuse without accountability,” reads the report compiled by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Kino Border Initiative (KBI).

“Many, if not most, CBP officers, and agents in CBP’s Border Patrol agency are professionals who seek to follow best practices. However, the frequency and severity of abuse allegations indicate that a substantial number of officers and agents don’t meet that standard.”

A WOLA database has listed more than 400 incidents of abuses against migrants encountered by CBP in the field or in custody since 2020, including physical violence, withholding of food and medicine and racial profiling.

Last month, debates flared over the use of horse patrols, after CBP concluded an investigation into a patrol that chased down migrants in the Rio Grande River last year.

The investigation found there were “multiple failures,” including training and “unprofessional and dangerous behavior” by the officers, but denied that any officer struck migrants.

One case the report focused on is that of Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez, an 8-year-old Panamanian girl who died in CBP custody in May. She was denied critical heart medication, and her death was recently classified as “preventable.”

Alvarez’s is one “of the most serious and concerning cases,” and “accountability is rare,” the report states. The report lists 13 cases where a person died due to the use of excessive force or a department failure to care for a person in custody.

The report claims that poor department policies make injuries and deaths more common, including encouraging high-speed car chases and improper use of force in crowd control situations.

Most cases of abuse go unreported, the report claims.

“Many abuses do not garner media or Congressional attention. Investigators and law enforcement never arrive at the scene, and [Department of Homeland Security] and CBP leadership likely don’t know they even occurred,” it reads.

Some of the problems are due to “opaque, bewildering, and slow-moving” reporting procedures, making it likely that cases slip through the cracks or never get reported in the first place, the report says.

“Right now, outside efforts to gain accountability for abuse must go through a convoluted system that has been cobbled together in the 20 years since the DHS’s founding,” it reads.

“Four agencies with overlapping responsibilities handle complaints and pass cases between each other. All suffer from personnel and other capacity shortfalls, and some have insufficient power to make their recommendations stick.”

A KBI study of 78 CBP complaints made from 2010-22 found that 95 percent failed to have a proper investigation. Only 1 percent resulted in disciplinary action.

Almost 20 percent of migrants who enter the U.S. suffer some form of abuse, KPI said, again acknowledging that the figure is likely an undercount.

“Most of the cases ... would have gone completely unknown without reporting from victims and those, outside of government, who accompany them. That such abuses are happening so frequently at CBP and Border Patrol indicates that DHS’s accountability system has done little to dissuade or disincentivize them,” the report says.

The Border Patrol contested the claims made in the report. A spokesperson said the agency has worked extensively in recent years to reduce incidents of abuse by improving policies and increasing transparency.

“CBP takes all allegations of misconduct seriously, investigates thoroughly, and holds employees accountable when policies are violated. We have also implemented significant reforms that make CBP more transparent and accountable to the American people,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement.

The agency has recently changed policies around high-speed chases to make them safer, deployed body cameras to officers in the field, and changed the internal investigations process, the spokesperson said.

“We recognize building and maintaining our culture of integrity is a generational commitment. We remain focused and deliberate in establishing, promoting, and enforcing our standards from recruitment to retirement through training, leadership development, and retention of those who embody the virtues and character the American people deserve in service to our nation,” they added.

The report lists more than 40 recommendations to improve the agency and stop human rights abuses at the border, including rewriting the complaint process, following through on investigations and punishing agents who commit abuse and changing agency culture to discourage abusive behavior.

“A U.S.-Mexico border that is well governed and that also treats migrants and asylum seekers humanely can go hand in hand and should not be seen as an unattainable aspiration,” the report states.

“For this to happen, U.S. government personnel who abuse human rights or violate professional standards, must be held to account within a reasonable amount of time and victims must receive justice.” 

Republicans in Congress have floated attempting to impeach Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who oversees the border patrol, due to what they view as inaction on the southern border.

According to department statistics released in July, the number of border crossings has gone down in recent months.

Updated on Aug. 3 at 2:29 p.m.