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ACLU: Border Patrol wrongfully detained U.S. citizens, seized vehicles & property

Over the past year, 10 U.S. citizens say they were wrongfully detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents and held in dirty, frigid and overcrowded cells, and despite never being charged with a crime, the agency seized vehicles and personal property. One woman said that after she was held, the agency required her to sign a "hold harmless" agreement to recover her car. 

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona filed a formal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security, and the component agencies of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Office of Personal Responsibility, demanding investigations into what the ACLU called "abuses arising from Border Patrol interior operations." 

The ACLU asked government investigators to "recognize that many of these allegations involve serious misconduct" and are not "mere 'performance' issues." 

The ACLU also said that OPR should conduct its own investigations, and take responsibility for "investigating and responding to the allegations of misconduct" while avoiding the common practice of delegating the investigation to "sector-level supervisors." 

"At the same time the Justice Department and the Obama administration are rightly urging local police to adopt ‘best practices’—ending racial profiling, collecting stop data, and curbing police militarization and asset forfeiture abuses—we see the nation's largest law enforcement agency, CBP, rejecting those commonsense reforms," said James Lyall, a staff attorney with the ACLU. "The federal government is effectively saying, ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ which leaves Border Patrol free to target citizens and non-citizens alike with these increasingly extreme and abusive practices.”

When asked about the ACLU's complaints, a spokesman for CBP said only: "It is CBP policy not to comment on pending litigation." 

The ACLU also said that it submitted a separate complaint to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CBP on behalf of a woman who was held overnight at the San Luis Port of Entry in Yuma. 

There she was "subjected to humiliating and invasive searches by agents and local hospital staff," during a search for drugs. The ACLU said that she was later told she is a government watch list as a "suspected narcotics smuggler" because she regularly travels to Mexico to visit family. 

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This complaint follows a lawsuit by an Arizona woman, who said she was wrongfully accused of smuggling drugs and subjected to repeated cavity searches by CBP officers, and by the staff of Holy Cross hospital in Nogales. 

The ACLU submitted 10 examples to DHS of misconduct received by the group over the past year, however, the ACLU said that these cases were "representative of many similar complaints of civil rights violations by Border Patrol agents that the ACLU receives on a regular basis." 

In May 2015, Marlo Paipa, a U.S. citizen and two friends were returning from a sightseeing trip in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refugee near Arivaca when they were pulled over by Border Patrol agents near Three Points. 

The agents detained Paipa and her companions, but refused to tell them the charges, and took them to the Border Patrol station in Tucson where they were held overnight.

As Paipa tried to sleep on the concrete bench with an aluminum survival sheet as a blanket, she was woken up three separate times by agents to sign paperwork, including one document that related to the forfeiture of her vehicle. 

However, the next morning, Paipa and her two companions were taken to a Circle K gas station and dropped off. 

Nearly two weeks later, Paipa received a letter that her vehicle was subject to forfeiture and she had 30 days to context the seizure. Papa did so, and recovered her vehicle two months later, but only on the condition that she sign a "hold harmless" agreement that she would not pursue legal action against U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of Border Patrol. 

In June 2015, Jesus Loreto Jr. was stopped at the Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 90 near Sierra Vista, and was held after an agent said that a drug dog had "hit" on the vehicle. An agent then used "some kind of scanning equipment" on his truck. Moments later, the agent tore into the bed of the vehicle, and the agents accused Loreto of holding "contraband" in his truck and he was arrested and taken to the Border Patrol station in Willcox, and held in a room Loreto said was freezing, until 11 p.m. when an agent handed him a forfeiture document, telling him that if he didn't sign he could not retrieve his property. 

When Loreto refused, he said the agent became aggressive and said, "We can sit here all night until you sign, buddy." 

After two days and nights, Loreto was released and was never charged with a crime, but again he was required to sign a "hold harmless" agreement with CBP and pay $3,500 to retrieve his vehicle. 

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The ACLU has repeatedly accused the agency of mistreating detainees and citizens, arguing that people face routine harassment at BP checkpoints, freezing conditions at holding centers, and that roving patrols have terrified U.S. citizens and unauthorized immigrants alike. 

At the same time, the agency's own internal affairs system appears broken, according to a federal oversight panel that said in May that "until recently CBP lacked the structure, oversight and accountability required to uniformly" implement new standards, as part of an overall effort by CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske to improve the agency's transparency and accountability launched in 2014. 

The panel noted that Homeland Security "never developed a truly CBP-wide process for receiving, tracking and responding to public complaints." 

"The CBP discipline system is broken," the panel said. "The length of time from receiving an allegation of misconduct to imposing final discipline is far too long."

And, in 2014, the American Immigration Council said that abuse complaints rarely lead to disciplinary action. 

Fewer than two percent of complaints against Border Patrol agents in a three-year period were followed with action against an agent, said the AIC. 

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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