The recent crush of migrant children trying to cross the US border has now led the Department of Homeland Security to open a probe into long-running complaints of poor treatment of innocents at the hands of US border patrol agents.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s announcement that his department will investigate claims of abuse comes amid an unprecedented surge of "unaccompanied alien children" streaming across the Rio Grande Valley sector and into south Texas.
Children fleeing violence and drawn by vague promises of asylum in the US, now being apprehended at the rate of more than 250 a week, has overwhelmed both the border patrol and the Department of Health and Human Services, which manages guardian-less child refugees.
The probe is likely to inflame tensions between the White House and the border patrol over America’s immigration policy. As President Obama has moved to defer deportation for some who came to the US illegally as children, some border patrol agents have been critical, suggesting that the White House’s empathetic stance – particularly Mr. Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) order – is drawing America into a spiral of lawlessness.
An internal May 30 border patrol memo by Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello suggested that US policy is encouraging the migration as news has seeped out that some migrant children are being reunited with their parents in the United States.
That background tension between border agents in the Southwest and the Obama administration in Washington provides a vivid backdrop to the questions raised by the recent abuse allegations.
"Border agents operate in a zone of impunity," said James Lyall of the ACLU Border Litigation Project, in a Tuesday press release. "Given the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s recent promise to be more accountable and transparent, we call on the agency to finally address these systemic abuses in a serious and meaningful way."
Secretary Johnson announced the investigation on Thursday, after the ACLU and several immigrant rights groups lodged more than 100 complaints with the DHS Inspector General on Tuesday.
Allegations include children becoming ill from eating moldy food and having to drink water from toilet tanks, and being called liars for begging for medications.
As the number of unaccompanied minors entering the US has grown – from 6,560 in fiscal year 2011 to a projected 90,000 this year – children are being housed at three military facilities and other shelters while officials scramble to find guardians for them until they go before immigration judges. As many as two-thirds of the juveniles may be eligible for asylum in the United States, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Tensions rose further on Friday when some members of Congress chafed at Obama administration demands ahead of their Friday tour of Ventura County Naval Base in Oxnard, Calif., where about 100 migrant children are staying. Administration officials asked lawmakers and staff not to take photos or talk to the children during the tour.
Those requests protected the children's privacy, but they also turned the tour into a “dog and pony show” intended to “hide an ugly truth,” said one congressional staffer quoted by The Daily Caller.
Immigration activists are taking the opportunity to pin the border patrol into a corner, criticizing it for detaining some children longer than the legal 72-hour limit and also fretting that the agency may be releasing children too quickly into the hands of unreliable guardians. The Obama administration has issued no figures on how many children have been released inside the US pending their court dates.
Meanwhile, Gil Kerlikowske, commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, came to the defense of border patrol agents on Friday.
The agents, mostly young and male, are taking on roles as babysitters, even changing diapers of some smaller children, he said. Many children are receiving medical care for the first time, and, in one instance, agents procured a cake and sang "Happy Birthday" for a child in a detention center who turned 11.
“I’ve been down there, a lot, and spent a lot of time and I’ve seen these agents doing incredible things,” he told The Washington Times.