We mourn the killing of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez. We lament and decry the absence of justice, and we are wholeheartedly dismayed by the fact that the abuse that killed him is commonplace among CBP officials, especially Border Patrol.
In this piece, we will relate the patterns of abuse, including accounts we have heard directly from migrants. After years of hearing these stories, scrutinizing policy, and scouring data, we have concluded that CBP is either unwilling or unable to rectify this abuse with the needed reforms. Indeed, we will explain why many such efforts have failed.
If we want to see CBP and especially Border Patrol treat migrants with dignity, we must take action. Click here to learn how you can raise your voice today.
A Widespread Pattern of Abuse
The U.S. Border Patrol is the largest law enforcement agency in the country, with nearly 20,000 agents. They operate checkpoints and conduct enforcement missions in an area up to 100 miles within U.S. territory.
Their pattern of abuse is as widespread as their presence. Of the migrants arriving at the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) in 2021 who had been deported, nearly half reported some form of abuse by a U.S. official. Dozens of asylum seekers shared with KBI staff that they approached the port of entry and were turned away without having their asylum claims heard. Migrants have also reported verbal abuse, excessive force, and sexual assault by Border Patrol. Of the 1,667 reported abuses by U.S. authorities in 2021, 94% were committed by Border Patrol Agents.
Marco Antonio* a Guatemalan national we met in April, had a particularly harrowing story of abuse. A Border Patrol agent ran him over with his four-wheeler before pushing him to the ground and detaining him. The agent first hit him with the front bumper of his vehicle before running over his right leg with one of the front wheels. Another BP agent realized that Marco Antonio could not walk, and picked him up and carried him to another four-wheeler to transport him to the hospital.
At the hospital, Marco Antonio was treated for severe dehydration and a dislocated knee joint. Hours later, he was transported to the border in Nogales, where they arrived around noon. Mexican immigration officials refused to accept him because of his condition, as he was unable to walk. Border Patrol then drove him back to the station, and later that day, they took him back to Nogales, where they expelled him on or after 10PM, when there were no Mexican authorities to receive him. He was unable to walk, still dazed from the incident, and completely vulnerable to the elements and criminal organizations in the dead of night.
In the face of such violence and gross negligence, Marco Antonio is lucky to have escaped with his life. Others have not been so lucky. Death is the most violent outcome of the abuse of power, and more lives have been lost at the hands of Border Patrol since José Antonio was killed. This very year, a Border Patrol agent shot and killed Carmelo Cruz Marcos while trying to arrest him.
Five members of the group traveling with him arrived at KBI in March. They had all been held a month and a half in detention as witnesses to the crime. One of those in the group was a cousin of the victim. He was not informed for a week that his cousin had died. When the group was expelled to Nogales, Sonora, Border Patrol did not return their identification or the money they had with them when they were detained.
As more information about this tragic incident has continued to surface, numerous red flags and inconsistencies have emerged.
It is clear that CBP has failed to stop Border Patrol’s abuse and to uphold migrant dignity. Understanding why is an important step towards finding justice and accountability.
No Guardrails: Why Accountability is Elusive
As we have accompanied them, migrants face when pursuing justice. Right now, CBP policy and systems make accountability and reform almost functionally impossible. Perhaps this is why, to this day, Lonnie Swartz has been the only federal agent prosecuted in U.S. courts for a cross-border shooting since 2010. This is despite the fact that the Southern Border Communities Coalition, which maintains a list of fatal encounters along the border, has recorded 60 deadly use-of-force incidents in the same period.
Here are a few dynamics that allowed CBP to continue their abuses with near impunity.
- Stories of abuse don’t get reported. When migrants experience harm and abuse at the hands of U.S. officials, many have just experienced trauma. It can be difficult to understand what just happened, let alone imagine what recourse would look like. KBI surveys show that fewer than 1 in 12 people (or 7.7%) who have cause to file a complaint do so or even attempt to. Simply deciding that they would like to pursue recourse is a huge achievement for a migrant.
- Mechanisms for seeking accountability are opaque. Many migrants are not aware that they have a right to file a complaint when they experience abuse at the hands of Border Patrol or CBP. Others believe that complaints make no difference. They have a point. In one year, KBI supported 49 migrants in filing complaints. Of those, KBI only received some information on what was happening in the investigation for 13. For the others KBI only received confirmation of receipt notification it was forwarded to a particular internal department.
- Investigations of Border Patrol are Conducted by Border Patrol. In most cases Border Patrol is involved in investigating itself, a clear conflict of interest. This conflict of interest, coupled with a lack of accessible information about how these cases are investigated, means that Border Patrol can conduct investigations without much oversight.
- Border Patrol has Ballooned without Oversight. Border Patrol doubled in size under the Obama administration. To accommodate this explosive growth, the agency loosened their hiring standards. They failed to hire a proportional number of staff to oversee agents and ensure their training and proper conduct.
- Disorganized Approach to Reform and Accountability. At the same time Border Patrol burgeoned, uncoordinated attempts at reform resulted in a plethora of disconnected agencies seeing complaints without any one being ultimately responsible for moving complaints forward. As a result, the process of investigation gets delayed until evidence is old. Complaint databases are poorly organized, cataloged, and shared among internal investigative bodies, making it difficult to discern patterns of abuse and address them.
- Proliferation of a Militarized Mentality. When the Department of Homeland Security was created, the department’s focus was to protect the U.S. from terrorists. By housing CBP within DHS, this mentality has seeped into agents, including Border Patrol. The broader culture positioned Border Patrol to imagine themselves as part of the mission to keep out terrorists, priming them to see migrants and border residents as threatening. In recent years, cruel policies like criminalizing parents and separating them from their children proved too much for agents concerned about human rights. Many left, draining the agency of officers with a stronger ethic and respect for migrant dignity.
Together, these abuses make it clear that we must act if we want to prevent more lives from being lost. We must accompany migrant families as they seek justice and reform. We stand in solidarity with them, including by taking action and demanding better policy.
Taking Action for Justice and Accountability
Too often, our siblings in migration are treated in a way that belies their inherent human worth. While this maltreatment comes in many forms, excessive use of force, abuse, humiliation, and even death at the hands of U.S. officials remains particularly pernicious. Even worse, these acts of violence and dehumanization are rarely brought to the service, let alone investigated and resolved with justice.
We can do better. We must do better. As a community that crosses the border, we demand that migrants rights be respected no matter where they were born or on which side of the border they stand. A violation of the law and human rights is an affront to us all, and to the community of love and dignity we want to see in Ambos Nogales and beyond.
It is clear the CBP is incapable or unmotivated to hold itself accountable. That’s why we urgently call upon every citizen and official to act!
Today, we invite you to take one step in bringing more justice by lifting your voice. Call both of your Senators (use the number 202-224-XXXX, and find the last 4 digits HERE), and your House Representative (phone list HERE) and ask them to invest in humanitarian welcome and functional oversight rather than more funds towards Border Patrol and its abuse.
Migration with Dignity is possible, but it will not happen without us lifting our voices to say that no child of God should be harmed in this way. No person deserves to be traumatized, abused, even killed because they have exercised the right to migrate.