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Abuse complaints rarely lead to discipline for border agents

Fewer than two percent of complaints against Border Patrol agents in a three-year period were followed with action against an agent, according to records gathered by an immigrant rights group. 

The American Immigration Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, gathered the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request with the internal affairs office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The report shows that of 809 abuse complaints filed between January 2009 and January 2012 against agents within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, only 13 resulted in some action by the agency. 

Six complaints resulted in counseling, two led to court proceedings against the agent, two complaints led to an oral reprimand, and two more required written reports. Only one complaint resulted in the suspension of an agent. 

Of the 809 complaints, the documents showed that “no action was taken” in more than 58 percent of cases. Forty percent of cases remain under investigation.

Both agents and 25 supervisors were included in the complaints. While many incidents of alleged abuse were directed at men, more than 23 percent of the complaints included women who reported physical abuse, inappropriate touching and in six cases sexual abuse. 

When asked for a response, a spokesman said the agency was "crafting a comment." 

“These findings are just the tip of the iceberg, and they confirm what thousands of victims of Border Patrol abuse already know: there are no consequences for agents who violate the law,” wrote James Lyall, a staff attorney with the ACLU in Arizona. 

The lack of a centralized system for complaints makes the size of the problem difficult to ascertain, as complaints that include civil rights violations are not included in the report. 

Despite this complication, some patterns were clear. 

In more than 40 percent of incidents, detainees complained that they were physically abused, including being stomped or kicked while they were handcuffed. In the most egregious example, a pregnant woman detained near El Paso in 2010 accused an agent of causing her miscarriage after he kicked her during her arrest. 

Other incidents included verbal abuse, threats, and withholding medical care. 

Complaints in the Tucson Sector, which covers most of Arizona, included a minor who said that in 2011 an agent “hit him on the head with a metal flashlight 20 times” kicked him “five times” and pushed him down a hill. Another minor complained that an agent forced him to sign a document. One agent was accused of touching female migrants “inappropriately.” 

More than a third of the complaints came from the Tucson Sector, where agents were accused of mistreatment 279 times, followed by the Rio Grande Sector with 167 complaints and San Diego with 132. 

However, a more complicated picture emerges when the Tucson Sector is compared to the rest by the number of agents and the number of apprehensions. By the number of agents, Tucson remains first among sectors, with nearly 31 complaints per 1,000 border agents. But when compared to the number of apprehensions, Del Rio which covers 200 miles of the Rio Grande in Texas, is the most troublesome area for complaints. 

In Del Rio, there were 114.3 complaints for every 100,000 apprehensions. By contrast, Tucson was one of the lowest sectors, with a complaint rate of 69.5 per 100,000 apprehensions. 

One of the report’s authors, Daniel Martinez, an assistant professor of sociology at George Washington University, calls the lack of resolution in these cases “striking.” 

“I think these findings are pretty consistent with what we know about the treatment of people within the system, but what’s really remarkable is the among these cases, the formal decision often resulted in no action taken,” he said. 

Martinez cautions that the complaints are allegations of mistreatment, but he believes the report “barely scratches the surface” of potential complaints as many people may not understand how to file a complaint, may fear retaliation, and seldom have the resources to follow-up on a complaint. The lack of contact with non-governmental organizations may also help understand big variations between different sectors, said Martinez.

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Despite this, Martinez says there are problems in San Diego and Rio Grande sectors that are consistent with previous research, including the Migrant Border Crossing Study, which he helped author. 

Over the last year, the Border Patrol has been hammered for excessive use of force.

An independent assessment of the agency by the Police Executive Research Forum, criticized the agency’s “lack of diligence” when investigating more than 69 incidents when agents discharged their weapons. 

This includes the shooting deaths of 19 people, including 16-year old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez who was shot through the border fence on October 10, 2011 by Border Patrol agents. That incident remains under investigation by the FBI. 

In March, Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke and New Mexico Representative Steve Pearce submitted the “Border Enforcement Accountability, Oversight and Community Engagement Act.” The measure includes the creation of a border oversight commission, community liaison offices, a mandate for additional training in non-lethal weapons and the protection of civil rights. 

The bill would also require the agency to track the death of migrants along the border region and order DHS to provide reports on use-of-force guidelines and management practices at U.S. ports to Congress. 

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Paul M. Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A U.S. Border Patrol agent at the Arivaca checkpoint.