A new study is adding to long-standing concerns that the Border Patrol is subject to inadequate oversight, with border-crossers claiming mistreatment and abuse at the hands of agents.
The issue has grown in importance as the Border Patrol itself has more than doubled in size during the past decade to more than 21,000 agents. The Border Patrol recorded 1.67 million apprehensions on the Southwest border form 2009 to 2012. With border enforcement central to immigration reform proposals in Washington, the Border Patrol's footprint could grow even further.
About 1 in 10 migrants detained for crossing the border illegally reported some form of physical abuse – such as hitting, kicking, and pushing – at the hands of border agents, according to the study, released this week by the Immigration Policy Center, a liberal think tank in Washington. And about 1 in 4 reported that while in custody they were yelled at, threatened, or verbally abused, some with nationalistic or ethnic slurs.
"This is an agency that has almost total impunity in many, many areas," says David Shirk, a border expert and political scientist at the University of San
Diego who was not involved in the study. "We need the Border Patrol to take criticisms, to respond thoughtfully and seriously to these kinds of questions and
Under current practices, if an agent is reported for bad conduct, he says, "It all stays within the agency, and it is not subject to outside scrutiny."
For its part, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Enforcement, which includes the Border Patrol, did not respond directly to the study, but released a statement saying it takes seriously the safety of detainees as well as complaints against its employees.
"Accusations of alleged unlawful conduct on or off duty, are investigated thoroughly and if substantiated, appropriate action is taken," the statement reads.
The new study is based on interviews with 1,110 migrants surveyed shortly after deportation in six Mexican cities – Mexico City and the border cities of Nogales, Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, and Mexicali – from 2009 to 2012. About 1 in 3 migrants said they did not recover possessions taken from them while in custody; such as money, clothing, jewelry, and identification cards. In addition, a handful of women reported inappropriate touching during searches.
"They felt the way they were searched was taken too far," says Daniel Martinez, a sociologist at Georgetown University who was a co-author of the study.
Researchers say the lack of oversight and accountability goes far beyond the Border Patrol.
"This is not a question of a few bad apples, this is a systematic and consistent problem at the institutional level," says Jeremy Slack, a researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson who worked on the study.
The findings echo complaints from human-rights groups and border-watch organizations. Indeed, criticism against the Border Patrol has escalated in recent years as confrontations between border-crossers and agents have left several migrants dead on both sides of the border. Calls for greater oversight of the agency, as well for agents to stop firing guns against rock-throwers, have grown louder.
After a September report by the DHS inspector general concluded that many border agents were unclear on when to use lethal force, Customs and Border Protection announced new guidelines that included enhanced training, better record-keeping and more nonlethal tactics.
But in November, the agency rejected a recommendation from the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, which reviewed agency practices and policies, to eliminate deadly force against rock attacks.
"We shouldn't have carve-outs in our policy and say, except for this, except for that," Border Patrol chief Mike Fisher told the Associated Press. "Just to say that you shouldn't shoot at rock-throwers or vehicles for us, in our environment, was very problematic and could potentially put Border Patrol agents in danger."
To Erik Lee, executive director of the North American Research Partnership, a think tank that looks at the strategic relationship of the US, Canada, and Mexico, the study shows there is a long way to go. It is too early to assess if the new guidelines are having an impact on an agency that is resistant to change, he adds.
"The large issues remain, and it takes time for any of these agencies to change."