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ACLU: Migrant kids accused Border Patrol of 'shocking' physical, sexual & mental abuse

30,000 pages from Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties show no evidence of disciplinary action for CBP officials

Thousands of pages of documents secured through a federal lawsuit show that dozens of unaccompanied minors reported physical, mental and sexual abuse while they were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, yet there's little evidence that officials meaningfully investigated such claims, said civil rights advocates in a report released Wednesday.

"The documents show numerous cases involving federal officials’ verbal, physical and sexual abuse of migrant children; the denial of clean drinking water and adequate food; failure to provide necessary medical care; detention in freezing, unsanitary facilities; and other violations of federal and international law and policy," advocates said.

The agency said the accounts of abuse are "unfounded and baseless," while referring to them as "accusations made by the ACLU against the previous administration."

Among the incidents alleged by the ACLU are those in which federal border officials:

  • Used a stun gun on a boy, causing him to fall to the ground, shaking, with his eyes rolling back in his head
  • Verbally abused detained children, calling them dogs and "other ugly things"
  • Denied detained children permission to stand or move freely for days and threatened children who stood up with transfer to solitary confinement in a small, freezing room
  • Denied a pregnant minor medical attention when she reported pain, which preceded a stillbirth
  • Subjected a 16-year-old girl to a search in which they "forcefully spread her legs and touched her private parts so hard that she screamed"
  • Left a 4-pound premature baby and her minor mother in an dirty, overcrowded cell full of sick people, against medical advice
  • Threw out a child's birth certificate and threatened him with sexual abuse by an adult male detainee.

"Again and again, the government agents responsible for these children’s welfare have turned a blind eye to colleagues’ lawlessness and violence," the report said.

A CBP spokesman said the report includes "false accusations."

"The 'report' equates allegations with fact, (and) flatly ignores a number of improvements made by CBP," said spokesman Dan Hetlage.

Released by the American Civil Liberties Union and the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, the 48-page report catalogues dozens of claims filed by unaccompanied minors over a five-year period, showing the "pervasive abuse and neglect" of children from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. 

The report is based on more than 30,000 pages of documents dated from 2009 to 2014 obtained by the ACLU's Border Litigation Project—a joint project of ACLU affiliates in Arizona and San Diego—through the Freedom of Information Act. In 2014, the ACLU filed a federal complaint against DHS on behalf of 116 unaccompanied minor children who reported abuse and neglect while they were held in CBP custody. 

In 2015, the ACLU along with law firm Cooley LLP sued DHS arguing that failing to produce documents violated the Freedom of Information Act and impeded the ACLU's efforts to "educate the public on matters of pressing concern—namely, the mistreatment of children in Border Patrol custody." 

After months of litigation, in 2015 a federal court compelled the government to begin releasing documents from the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, a government watchdog under DHS, showing what the ACLU called "numerous cases of shocking violence and abuse against migrant children." 

"CRCL documents show that abuse occurs at each stage of a child’s interaction with CBP, from apprehension to detention to deportation," the report said. "The abuse is not limited to one state, sector, station, or group of officials—rather, the CRCL documents reflect misconduct throughout the southwest, from California to Texas, at ports of entry and in the interior of the United States."

According to CBP's Hetlage, the agency "already completed an investigation and found these claims unsubstantiated and did not observe misconduct or inappropriate conduct. CBP takes seriously all allegations of misconduct, but without new specifics is unable to check to commence reasonable steps to examine these assertions and address the accusations levied."

The apparent lack of federal oversight comes at an especially perilous time for migrant children, as the Trump administration has begun separating children from their parents as they seek asylum. 

In late April, the New York Times reported that at least 700 children had been taken from their parents and handed over to the Office of Refugee and Resettlement, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“The students reviewing these records were shocked by the abuse and neglect these children were subjected to at the hands of U.S. officials," said Claudia Flores, the faculty director of the International Human Rights Clinic. "The fact that these children were already so vulnerable, most traveling alone in hopes of escaping violence and poverty in their home countries, made the unlawful and inhumane actions reflected in the documents even more distressing," she said. 

Mitra Ebadolahi, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Border Litigation Project called the misconduct demonstrated in the records "breathtaking." 

"These documents provide a glimpse into a federal immigration enforcement system marked by brutality and lawlessness," said Ebadolahi. "All human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their immigration status—and children, in particular, deserve special protection," she said. "The misconduct demonstrated in these records is breathtaking, as is the government’s complete failure to hold officials who abuse their power accountable."  

"The abuse that takes place by government officials is reprehensible and un-American," Ebadolahi said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, CBP's parent agency, blasted the ACLU's document as "without merit."

"It is absurd that the ACLU would push further this 'report,' when even by their own admission there is no corroborating evidence of the alleged abuse," said DHS's Katie Waldman. "Packaging dozens of patently baseless allegations and calling it a 'report' does not change the fact it is just a collection of patently baseless allegations."

Punches & kicks

Children reported wide-ranging issues all along the U.S.-Mexico border, including allegations that CBP officials verbally and physically abused children, punching and kicking them, using Tasers, and in one particularly egregious case, a Border Patrol agent ran over a 17-year-old boy with a patrol vehicle, breaking his right leg, and then punched him several times, the complaints said. 

A 15-year-old boy said that an agent punched him, and hit him with a thorny bush leaving a scar, and when the boy told the agent he was a minor, the agent replied "I don't care, you son of a bitch" in Spanish. 

Other migrant children reported that agents used Tasers despite a policy limiting the use of the less-lethal weapon on subjects who are smaller than average, including small children, elderly people and pregnant women. In one case, a 14-year-old boy, who was 5 feet tall and weighed 120 pounds according to a complaint, was tased by a Border Patrol agent. 

Children also reported sexual abuse, including a girl who was arrested in the desert near Phoenix, Arizona and said an agent grabbed her buttocks, and only stopped when her screaming brought another agent. Another girl reported that an agent touched her between the legs. 

The abuse continued in detainment facilities, as well. 

One woman said that after her baby soiled his pants through his diaper, agents made her throw the pants in the trash and then refused to provide another pair of pants or a diaper, "even though the room was extremely cold." Another minor said that agents threatened to hit him with collapsible batons, and threatened to withhold food if he did not follow instructions quickly, advocates said. One detained child asked to take a shower after 9 days in custody, and an agent said "if you wanted to shower you should have stayed in your country," the complaint read. 

Agents also denied medical attention, in one case a pregnant girl reported pain, but agents reportedly accused her of lying about her pain; she later went into labor and the baby was stillborn.

Many of the complaints came in part during a time when the number of unaccompanied minors and family units along the Southwest border stressed the agency, as it rushed to detain and process thousands of children and their parents, but there's no sign that federal officials have moved to follow up on claims, or prosecute agents for alleged abuse. 

In 2010, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended 18,622 unaccompanied minors, including nearly 8,000 in the Tucson Sector, but by 2014, the number of minors spiked to 68,631, largely driven by a massive influx in the Rio Grande Valley. 

That year, the agency tried to deal with the influx by shifting migrant children around the United States, including shifting hundreds to the Nogales Border Patrol station. 

"Crucially, the CRCL documents show that various DHS entities, including oversight agencies like CRCL and OIG, are aware of CBP’s unethical and unlawful abuse of minors—and yet these DHS entities have failed to properly investigate, much less remedy, alleged abuse," the report said. 

In part, this was due to a jumble of agencies devoted to investigations, which includes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Inspector General's Office from DHS, CRCL, Border Patrol's own investigators, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

This follows long-term complaints that detained immigrants, including minor children are regularly held for more than 24 hours in dirty, cold and overcrowded cells, where they experience sleep deprivation and other problems, potentially violating the agency's own standards. In early 2017, a federal judge agreed and installed a preliminary injunction requiring the agency to provide bedding and showers for detainees as part of a class-action lawsuit. 

In fact, conditions in federal holding facilities have become so so notorious they are often called hieleras, or "iceboxes," by both agents and detainees.

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The documents from CRCL were "shocking" in part because they "do not contain any evidence of disciplinary action" or "other meaningful action." 

"Rather, the records indicate—at best—cursory 'investigations' closed out via boilerplate language rather than thorough individualized assessments," the report said. 

CRCL and OIG lack the authority to do much, and CRCL has "no power to discipline or prosecute" CBP officials, the report said. Under a federal law regarding the treatment of victims, officials should report abuse to the FBI, however, there's "no indication" that CRCL has ever done so, they said. 

Advocates called CRCL investigations "cursory" and said that officials charged with oversight were "over-reliant" on records from CBP that were often inaccurate, leading to "hasty closures" from investigators who appeared overwhelmed by the shear number of complaints. 

"It’s terrifying to think that the horrible abuses described in these documents can continue and perhaps worsen under the Trump administration," said Astrid Dominguez, director of the ACLU Border Rights Center. "It’s unacceptable that there are no mechanisms in place to shed light on CBP’s abuses and ensure accountability." 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool

Unaccompanied minors in the holding areas at the Nogales Processing Center in June 2014.