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.

Rep. Glenn Ivey says any impeachment articles against Biden would be ‘dead ends’

Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-Md.) said impeachment articles targeted at President Joe Biden and other administration officials would lead to “dead ends” during a TV appearance Friday.

Ivey, a House Judiciary Committee member, said Republicans’ efforts to impeach Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas “damaging” to their party. During his appearance on "The Hill" on NewsNation, Ivey said he sees “no case” against the current president and that Republicans are unclear in what they think his wrongdoing is.

“I think they’re heading in the wrong direction,” Ivey said.

Ivey, also said House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has given “way too much ground” to Freedom Caucus members. He said he thinks they “definitely” want "one or maybe all three" administration members impeached.

“I think the Speaker's struggling to give them enough to keep them on board, but without destroying the party as a whole in the upcoming elections,” Ivey said.

$1.17M whistleblower settlement raises new questions for embattled DHS inspector general

A $1.17 million settlement with a former Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General employee who flagged issues with embattled Inspector General Joseph Cuffari is raising a fresh set of questions from Congress.

The settlement, signed earlier this month but revealed by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) on Thursday, admits no wrongdoing by Cuffari's office but makes a substantial whistleblower reprisal payment to Jennifer Costello, the employee.

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) investigation into the matter surfaces a number of bizarre clashes between the two employees, including a beef over Costello’s refusal to print thousands of pages of documents she asserted Cuffari could read online to his initial plan to try and assign her to a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) dealing with countering weapons of mass destruction.

But lawmakers are also raising questions over whether Cuffari misled Congress about the need for a $1.4 million contract to investigate Costello and others.

The settlement received by Costello is the largest known settlement for an employee of an inspector general office and among the largest ever given to a federal employee.

A joint letter from top Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee and House Oversight and Accountability Committee obtained by The Hill indicates lawmakers plan to probe the deal, as well as why Cuffari’s deputy was able to sign off on the agreement without alerting other officials.

A deposition in front of the board “raises serious concerns about your possibly retaliatory actions and lack of candor, improper use of taxpayer dollars, and lack of truthfulness in your communications with Congress,” Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) write in the letter to Cuffari.

Costello in 2019 made disclosures about Cuffari to both Congress and the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), which is now investigating Cuffari. He likewise complained to the organization about her.

Costello’s complaints included that Cuffari delayed a report on DHS’s struggle to track children and parents separated at the border under a Trump administration policy, according to records Costello supplied to the POGO.

Costello was dismissed in June 2020, but Cuffari told the MSPB his plan to assign her to the Office for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction — despite her lack of relevant experience — was made before an investigation into her conduct.

“Your testimony appears to show that at least one of the allegations brought against Ms. Costello as a basis for her proposed removal was frivolous,” the lawmakers wrote.

“Specifically, the deposition transcript reveals that after you requested that Ms. Costello print thousands of pages of DHS OIG policies, she expressed concern to you that it was not a ‘valuable use of the staff resources or appropriated funds.’ You then decided that this suggestion was grounds for removal because she ‘was making a determination on whether or not [the printing] was appropriate.’”

The POGO report indicates Cuffari made other inaccurate claims to justify his firing of Costello, including that she ordered a criminal review of his travel shortly after taking the job — a review that was initiated by another employee.

Cuffari spent $1.4 million on a contract with law firm WilmerHale to investigate Costello and others, one that lawmakers contend “did not substantiate any illegal conduct.”

They say Cuffari also failed to disclose to Congress that other inspectors general he asked to probe the conduct of Costello declined to do so. 

“Your omission of this important information raises questions about your intentions when you informed Congress that you conferred with other Inspectors General and whether or not you accurately reflected the events preceding your decision to hire WilmerHale,” they wrote.

The settlement with Costello was signed by his chief of staff, Kristen Fredricks, something Thompson and Raskin say should have prompted an alert to ethics officials, as federal regulations require that they be consulted when the conduct at issue involves the head of the agency.

“It is unclear whether you raised concerns regarding your subordinate’s approval of the $1.17 million settlement to resolve allegations pertaining to your misconduct. It is also unclear whether or not you sought an opinion from a DHS ethics officer,” they wrote.

“However, it is deeply troubling that the individual who approved the settlement is someone whom you directly oversee and promoted to the position of Chief of Staff. This decision raises a potentially serious and flagrant abuse of your position.”

Cuffari’s office did not respond to request for comment over the POGO report or the letter from Democrats.

An attorney for Costello said she was pleased with the result of the years-long battle.

“My client stood for what she believed was right.  Time has revealed that she was indeed right. And now she has a balm for the sacrifice she made to preserve the integrity of the work of the faithful civil servants of DHS OIG,” Costello attorney Eden Brown Gaines said in a statement. 

The matter adds to the growing complaints about Cuffari, who has earned the ire of lawmakers after failing to notify them that Secret Service text messages from Jan. 6 were lost in software migration. 

He most recently came under fire for saying that he routinely deletes text messages from his own government phone — an action that appears to violate record retention laws.

Lawmakers are also reviewing reports he censored findings of domestic abuse and sexual harassment by DHS employees.

Democrats border report seeks to undercut argument for Mayorkas impeachment

House Democrats on Friday released a report that includes segments of interviews over the last three months with border patrol sector chiefs they say undermine Republican arguments there is a crisis at the border.

The report is an effort to undercut a potential GOP impeachment inquiry against Homeland Security Secretary Alejando Mayorkas, and to counter narratives pushed by GOP leaders, who responded that Democrats had “cherry-picked” information.

“Democratic Committee staff is providing this memorandum to share the perspectives of Chief Patrol Agents which Republicans have chosen to ignore because they contradict the false and misleading claims promoted in order to justify efforts to impeach Secretary Mayorkas,” Democrats from both the House Oversight Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee concluded in the report.

“During their transcribed interviews, the Chief Patrol Agents presented assessments of border security unequivocally contrary to this Republican narrative. Chief Patrol Agents disagreed that a crisis currently exists at the southwest border and, in their own words, described their operations to obtain border security as successful.”

In one section of the report, Democrats take aim on GOP claims that Mayorkas is “intentionally” seeking disruption at the border, with staff asking multiple agents if they had ever been instructed by the secretary to stop securing the border, a question that garnered repeated nos.

Democrats said agents have “never received orders or directives to cease operations to secure the southwest border, and policies implemented have remained consistent with the law enforcement duties of U.S. Border Patrol agents.”

The memo also reviews other policy decisions made by the Biden administration, including the rescission of Title 42, which has led to a decline in figures at the border. 

Republicans have been critical of the change in procedure, which reverts back to processing under Title 8, which includes consequences for improperly crossing the border.

Officers interviewed by the committee discussed the process for checking the background of those apprehended, something Democrats said countered Republican assertions that terrorists or those with criminal records could enter the country.

“Each Chief Patrol Agent explained that U.S. Border Patrol continues to screen individuals it apprehends for criminal backgrounds or suspected ties to terrorist organizations and processed accordingly. In particular, the Chief Patrol Agents made clear that biometric data from apprehended individuals is screened against American law enforcement databases and, in some instances, even information from foreign governments,” Democrats wrote.

“Apprehended individuals who are found to possess a criminal history are not unilaterally released into the United States without diligent consultation with other law enforcement agencies.”

Agents interviewed also praised the rollout of staff designated to help with processing migrants, something they say has aided in getting officers into the field.

A GOP border bill this year barred funding for any such processing staff.

“They’re processing individuals, helping to not only do that, but they might be remote processing, things of that nature, to help us make sure that we’re having the data input that we need, reduces the amount of agents that are needed in our processing areas,” Big Bend Sector Chief Patrol Agent Sean McGoffin told the committees in April.

“And I think we’ve been very successful with that. We’re currently about—roughly 16 percent of our agents are actually processing as a whole. So that really helps our morale.” 

Republicans responded by releasing different portions of the interviews, including segments that stressed the need for consequences for those who cross the border, something that has been aided by the return of Title 8.

They also included segments with agents describing current levels of migration at historic highs.

“Today’s Democrat memorandum manipulates the facts contained in over 850 pages of testimony from Chief Patrol Agents stationed along the border to cover up the Biden border crisis,” House Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) and House Homeland Security Chair Mark Green (R-Tenn.) said in a statement.

“In reality, Chief Patrol Agents have detailed to our committees the historically high levels of illegal border crossings, migrant deaths, rescues of migrants put in peril by cartel smuggling organizations, gotaways, and assaults against our heroic Border Patrol agents.”

Mayorkas: ‘The number of people that are arriving at our border is at an extraordinary height’

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a new interview that the number of people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has reached an “extraordinary height.”

“The number of people that are arriving at our border is at an extraordinary height. There is no question about that,” Mayorkas told Sharyn Alfonsi in a forthcoming episode of “60 Minutes."

“But that is not unique to the southern border of the United States,” he continued. “There is tremendous amount of movement throughout the hemisphere, and in fact throughout the world.”

Mayorkas has faced intense criticism from Republican lawmakers over his handling of the southern border, with some calling for his impeachment.

“I think that we face a very serious challenge in certain parts of the border,” the Homeland Security secretary acknowledged in the "60 Minutes" interview.

However, he declined to call the situation a crisis, as many GOP lawmakers have described it.

“I have tremendous faith in the people of the Department of Homeland Security, and a crisis speaks to me of a withdrawal from our mission,” Mayorkas said. “And we are only putting more force and more energy into it.”

Encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border increased substantially under President Biden, with Customs and Border Patrol reporting nearly 2.4 million encounters from October 2021 through September 2022.

However, the Biden administration's new asylum policies aimed at discouraging Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan migrants from traveling through Mexico seem to have eased the influx slightly. Between December and January, encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped by nearly 100,000.

How a Bush-era law requiring border ‘perfection’ stands at center of GOP impeachment case  

A budding GOP impeachment case against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is relying on a 2006 law that says operational control of the border means the prevention “of all unlawful entries” to the United States — a standard seen as impossible to meet.  

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed during a failed Bush-era effort to move a comprehensive immigration reform bill. In the fallout, House Republicans rushed to show they were taking action on border security, requiring the installation of intermittent fencing along the southern border.  

Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (Gregory Payan/AP Images for NFL)

But a provision of the law defining operational control is now at the center of the new House GOP majority’s effort to impeach Mayorkas, who is accused of lying to Congress when he’s said the border is secure.  

“Secretary Mayorkas does not think that the border is open. He thinks that he has operational control, although the Secure Fence Act of 2006 clearly defines what operational control of a border is, and that means that no contraband or individual can come into the country illegally,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, a conservative Republican from Arizona and one of two members who have formally introduced articles of impeachment against Mayorkas. 

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“And yet, under his watch, Secretary Mayorkas has allowed in approximately 5 million illegal aliens coming through, and that doesn’t include got-aways,” added Biggs.

Republicans argue that Mayorkas has been ineffective in managing what they see as a crisis, as record numbers of migrants attempt to cross the southern border. It’s a failure they contend is a violation of his oath of office. 

“He has taken an oath, a constitutional oath, to obey the laws of the United States and protect us,” said Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Texas), who this year filed the first articles of impeachment against Mayorkas.   

Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Texas (AP Photo/Jess Rapfogel)

“In 2006, the Secure Fence Act was passed which requires the Department of Homeland Security Secretary to maintain the operational control of the southern border. He has clearly not done that,” Fallon said.  

Democrats and other critics of the GOP case argue that the differences between Republicans and Mayorkas are largely policy issues that don’t rise to the level of impeachment. 

“Impeachment covers treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors. It's not typically envisioned as covering policy disputes, or disagreements on policy, which seems like what these are,” said Dave Rapallo, a Georgetown Law professor who also worked with Democrats on the impeachment of former President Trump. 

He and others argue that the 2006 law lays out an impossible standard — but includes clear language that gives the secretary the discretion to determine how to meet it. 

“Congress has delegated to the secretary of Homeland Security the decision to determine what is 'necessary and appropriate.' And that's what the department is doing. There may be a difference of opinion about whether that happens with walls or other mechanisms to prevent unlawful entry,” Rapallo said. “But if the standard is that not one migrant can get into the United States, that’s a standard no secretary of Homeland Security would ever meet.” 

Doris Meissner, who ran the Immigration and Naturalization Service under former President Clinton and how heads the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, said the standard "isn't something that we ask of any other law enforcement regime."

Previous Homeland Security secretaries, Democrats and Republicans, have not been removed over the standard highlighted by Biggs and Fallon.  

“The assumption with having law enforcement at all, is that there are laws and there will be a degree to which laws are broken, and law enforcement, and law enforcement systems, and structures are in place to keep them to a minimum and to create accountability if they do happen," said Meissner. 

Biggs himself acknowledged the standard that no one or thing can enter the country illegally for the DHS secretary to not be impeached is a high one. But he argues Mayorkas still deserves to be impeached because of how he has handled border security.  

“While that particular statute requires perfection, which we all recognize is an impossible task, the American public still trusts him to do his very best to secure operational control of the border. He necessarily has the ‘public trust,’ and as a Cabinet secretary, he is a public man,” he wrote in an op-ed shortly after introducing his resolution. 

“The case against Alejandro Mayorkas … does not necessarily turn on whether Mayorkas has actually committed a statutorily defined black-letter crime. It is whether he has committed a ‘high crime’ as that term is understood under the U.S. Constitution.” 

The fencing bill was passed after two competing comprehensive immigration reform bills moved through the House and Senate in 2005. 

The House version, led by former Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), was a security-focused immigration crackdown; the Senate version led by former Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) paired border security and guest worker provisions with a broad legalization program for undocumented immigrants. 

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Jan. 29, 2008 (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

To no one's surprise, the House and Senate were unable to find a middle ground in conference, and the two bills failed in the lead-up to the 2006 midterm elections. 

“There really was a strong feeling, in the Senate in particular, that people had to go home with something to show for immigration, in order to be running their campaigns, and having some kind of a message to take back to their constituents,” said Meissner.  

“So they passed this act quite hurriedly in October of 2006, right on the cusp of the elections. It just had this sort of sweeping mandate, which really hadn't been tested or vetted with the executive branch,” she added. 

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), one of the co-sponsors of the 2006 border bill, described the legislation as tasking the Homeland Security secretary to determine where to put fencing. 

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

“It was our intention to put a fence not everywhere but where it made sense to put the fence on the border, you know, [in] more populated areas to have the infrastructure in place to stop illegal crossings,” he said, noting along with specific mileage of fencing, “we gave discretion to the secretary to use his or her judgment as to where to put it.” 

McCaul, a stern Mayorkas critic who has directly admonished the secretary in hearings, has likewise criticized members of his party for rushing a process he said should be handled by committees of jurisdiction who can investigate and build a strong case for impeachment.  

“You can make the case to the American people without having to do it overnight. We criticized the Democrats for impeaching Trump in one day. ... We shouldn't make that same mistake,” he told The Hill. 

Mayorkas and his department are now gearing up for a fight.  

The department initially declined to assign specific staff to deal with impeachment, but on Friday confirmed it had hired an outside law firm to aid in any eventual impeachment hearings. 

It’s also shifted tone in its public statements on impeachment developments, attacking the credibility of the resolutions directly. 

“Instead of pointing fingers and trying to score political points, the Members of Congress recklessly and baselessly pursuing impeachment should work on legislative solutions for our broken immigration system,” DHS said last week when Biggs’s resolution was introduced.  

Republicans have rolled out other arguments for impeachment, including one that mirrors a recent lawsuit from a number of GOP-led states challenging a program that allows 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela to be “paroled” into the country each month, while quickly expelling to Mexico an equal number of migrants from those countries who show up at the border. 

The resolution deems the current use of parole an abuse, calling it a way to "'legally’ admit aliens.” 

Biggs and other Republicans are also basing their impeachment case on a broader claim — dismissed as a conspiracy theory by Democrats — that the Biden administration is intentionally loosening border controls. 

“First of all, when we look at that intentionality, this is done intentionally,” Biggs told reporters last week. “This is not negligence, it is not by accident. It is not incompetence, and how do we know that? Well, just like we look at a culpable mental state, like intentionality or knowledge, we look at a totality of circumstances." 

Biggs said the evidence of intention is in Mayorkas ending a series of Trump-era border policies, a move that many Republicans believe is the direct cause of increased migration in the Western Hemisphere, presumably knowing his policies would result in increased border crossings. 

But whether Republican leadership decides to forward any impeachment resolution, the process could face a substantial roadblock in the Democratic-controlled upper chamber. 

“A majority of the House could just decide to impeach the secretary based on whatever it puts in its resolution,” Rapallo said. “But that's highly unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate.”