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Watchdog: 83 border agents made racist, sexist Facebook posts; CBP leaders didn't act to prevent incidents

Posts included 'Valentine' from Hitler, jokes about throwing burritos at migrants, and a sexist attack on a female congresswoman

Facing racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive social media activity from their employees, senior leaders with U.S. Customs and Border Protection took no action on their own to prevent further misconduct, according to a report published Monday by a federal watchdog.

In a 29-page report, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General said that over a three-year period more than 80 CBP employees violated the agency's policies making inappropriate posts on social media, and leadership at U.S. Border Patrol often failed to take the matters seriously, citing a "boys will be boys" attitude. The OIG wrote that in cases involving "racial harassment," management "took very little initiative" to deal with the problem.

Moreover, in some cases, leaders complained about the requirement to retrain around 1,800 employees in the Laredo Sector, while other leaders "questioned the legality" of CBP's social media policies "which may undermine CBP’s ability to enforce the policies." 

In July 2019, ProPublica uncovered a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents, where employees of the agency joked about the death of migrants, posted about throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a facility in Texas, and posted a vulgar illustration of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant. 

The revelations about the Facebook group, called "I'm 10-15" a reference to the Border Patrol code for "aliens in custody," set of a firestorm of criticism just as the agency was dealing with a significant increase in the number of people—including thousands of Central American families seeking asylum from violence and poverty in the US.—under the Trump administration.

In one series of posts, group members responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in May from the flue while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas. One member posted a GIF of the Sesame Street character Elmo with the quote, "Oh well.” Another responded with an image and the words "If he dies, he dies."

At its height, the Facebook group had around 9,500 members from across the country, including the Border Patrol chief at the time. 

Weeks later, ProPublica also uncovered a "challenge coin" that mocked the care of migrant children that year.

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Senior leadership 'took no action' to prevent future misconduct

Following reporting about the Facebook group, 10 senators and the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security asked the OIG to investigate the Facebook page, and consider "the extent to which senior leaders in headquarters and in field offices were aware of cases of social media misconduct and any actions they took to address those cases

The OIG found that senior leaders at CBP headquarters in Washington D.C. and field leaders may not have been aware of the posts "until they were made public by the media." 

Many of the decisions during this time were made by Mark Morgan, a former FBI agent tapped to the insular Border Patrol by President Barack Obama. Morgan lead Border Patrol at its chief until January 2017, but he later returned to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, before becoming acting commissioner for CBP as the White House constantly reshuffled leadership at DHS. 

Following the ProPublica report, Morgan created a special review board to process cases, and appointed a single individual to determine what consequences the agents might face. The official fire four employees from federal service entirely, suspended another 36, and issued counseling or reprimands to 25 others. Three other agents retired before their cases concluded, the OIG said. The agency also required all employees to take social media training, the OIG said. 

CBP said that it completed 136 cases surrounding the Facebook group. 

While "I'm 10-15" was uncovered in 2019, the OIG said that the group had been created in 2016, describing itself as forum for "funny" and "serious" discussion about work with the patrol. "Remember you are never alone in this family," the introduction said. And, senior leaders were notified about "I'm 10-15" as early as August 2016 by a Border Patrol assistant chief, who was emailed about the creation of the Facebook page. Included in the email was screenshots of posts, and the assistant chief stated they were "obvious policy violations" of CBP''s standards, the OIG said. The agent who created the Facebook page faced discipline for the creation of the page, the OIG said. 

Soon after that email, Morgan, and three other senior leaders were told about an offensive post on the "I'm 10-15" Facebook page, which included a photograph "depicting a Border Patrol agent engaging in a simulated sexual act with a mannequin," the OIG said. The next year, leaders received what the agency terms a Final Agency Decision that seven Border Patrol employees in Laredo "created a hostile work environment through social media."

Group included Border Patrol chief

A year after the Facebook page was uncovered, CBP had released little information about the Facebook page, and refused to explain how the group—which included Carla Provost, the agency's chief at the time—had existed for three years, with the agency's knowledge, without any serious intervention. And, the oversight committee said that their investigation had been derailed by a lack of cooperation from the agency. 

More than a year after the existence of the group was reported, CBP continues to obstruct a congressional investigation into the results of the agency’s findings, blatantly shielding agents that have dehumanized immigrants and fostered a culture of cruelty and violence,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat representing El Paso, Texas, who was mocked by agents in “I’m 10-15” posts, wrote ProPublica's A.C. Thompson. 

CBP said in a letter to Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari that the agency "agrees completely with the OIG's recommendations," however, the agency said that leadership at "the highest levels took, and will continue to take corrective action on any substantial misconduct." The agency said that in the case of "10-15" senior leadership responded by creating recurring social media training and mandated that agents complete the training by the end of September each year. 

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The agency also said that it's "well-established disciplinary process is itself a strong deterrent to future misconduct." This included racist posts on a private CBP-centric Facebook page named Laredo Choir Practice, and on their own personal social media accounts. The agency's own decision in the matter also concluded that two supervisors' responses to the allegations were "ineffective and inappropriate," and that it appeared "management took very little initiative to address the racial harassment." 

The agency's own decision recommended that CBP take disciplinary action against the seven agents and the supervisors, but while officials in the field wanted the measures, the acting chief of law enforcement operations, Scott Luck, decided to impose discipline in just four cases, the OIG said. 

"CBP headquarters officials were more widely aware of the results in this case than in other cases of social media misconduct, and their reactions differed," the OIG said, noting that some officials in Laredo "believed the agents’ offensive posts were covered by their right to freedom of speech." 

One official told the OIG that there was a "pervasive culture in CBP, and in law enforcement generally, where 'boys will be boys.' "He added that management has tried to change that perception, but more needs to be done, especially in remote locations," the OIG said. 

By 2018, CBP acknowledged that agents and employees had "posted inappropriate content" on a private Facebook group, and "reminded CBP employees that CBP policies prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of a protected class." As part of this effort, nearly 1,800 Border Patrol employees in the Laredo Sector were required to attend 16 hours of training, including 8 hours of online training and 8 hours of classroom work. However, the effort was stymied because the trainers believed that agents did not take the training seriously, and some agents were "disruptive."

"According to headquarters officials familiar with the training, the trainers were discouraged because Laredo sector agents did not take the training seriously," the OIG wrote. "One headquarters official received reports that agents considered the training 'window dressing,' and treated it as a joke, because they believed the sector would not make changes to incorporate the policies being taught. Another confirmed that agents receiving the training were disruptive." 

The acting chief of the Laredo Sector said that he was aware of the case, and that he was "frustrated" that nearly all of the sector's employees had to receive the training, which he said was "punishment for all, due to the actions of a few," the OIG wrote. A former division chief in the sector said he was not aware of the case, and "expressed surprise that he was not informed of it. Findings of a hostile work environment, he said, 'are rare." 

Complaints regularly go to CBP officials, and the OIG said that during their review almost 18,000 cases were filled, and of those, there were 83 substantiated case of social media misconduct, the OI G said. 

The OIG noted that among the CBP components, Border Patrol's officials "could have done more" especially in comparison to its sister agency, the Office of Field Operations, and that two BP supervisors  "did not address a hostile work environment established by seven agents." 

While Border Patrol leaders took little action, members of the other "components" of CBP, including the Office of Field Operations—which manages U.S. ports of entry—and Air and Marine Operations—which manages CBP's boats, helicopters, and other aircraft—issued their own guidance on social media.

Valentine from Hitler

OFO issued its own guidance after an employee posting a Valentine’s Day message from Adolf Hitler with anti-immigrant content. Later, when an employee posted a cartoon with immigrant children in kennels on Twitter, in 2018 the agency's leadership investigated the officer's misconduct, placed him in an administrative position and took his gun. 

Similarly, AMO disciplined one agent for disclosing official information, but another agent who made "derogatory" remarks about the president was not disciplined, the OIG said. 

Officials with OIG said that they "found no evidence" that senior leaders with CBP, either at headquarters in Washington D.C. or field leaders, were aware of the posts that violated CBP policy, including those senior leaders who were members of the Facebook page. However, DHS officials did not keep records of complaints or discipline connected to the social media posts published in July 2019. And, the OIG  said that "we were unable to conduct a forensic analysis of any I’m 10-15 Facebook usage because the group administrator terminated the group." 

Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent and strident critic of the agency dismissed the Inspector General's report. Quoting the report's conclusions that there was "no evidence that senior leaders, even those in the group, knew of its offensive content," Budd wrote on Twitter that the IG "did NOT conduct a forensic evaluation." She wrote that Rodney Scott, the current chief of U.S. Border Patrol "was a proud member of the group." 

"The IG only 'asked' him and other high ranking officials who were members of the racist, sexist group if they knew about the vulgar posts," she said. "They claimed they did not although they’d been members for years." Budd also accused the OIG of being "full of ex-agents who are encouraged to join the agency, and that many assist in covering up" for the agency's "crimes." 

Earlier this year President Joe Biden included a 22 percent increase in funding for the Office of Professional Responsibility at ICE and CBP as part of next year's budget, raising the budget for the two component agencies to $470  million. The funding would ensure that complaints about the agencies, including "those related to white supremacy or ideological and non-ideological beliefs" are quickly investigated. 

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