Impunity and the Border Patrol / The New York Times


If a Border Patrol agent beats, kicks, threatens or otherwise abuses you, you can file a complaint. What you can’t count on, evidently, is anything being done about it.

That is the sorry conclusion of a study released last week by the American Immigration Council, an advocacy organization in Washington. The council sought to collect data about abuse complaints against the Border Patrol — a difficult task, given the lack of transparency at Customs and Border Protection, the agency within the Department of Homeland Security to which the Border Patrol belongs.

The council had to sue under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain records of 809 complaints between January 2009 and January 2012. The accusations varied widely — of migrants kicked and stomped after being detained, struck in the face and head with flashlights and other objects, sexually groped, improperly strip-searched, verbally abused.

But in nearly every case, the outcome was the same: inaction or a lack of a resolution. For 472 complaints, or 58 percent, the case was closed under the heading “No Action Taken.” An additional 324 cases, or 40 percent, were still being investigated. Only 13 cases led to disciplinary action, most often counseling. There was just one suspension.

The organization acknowledged that there was no way to independently judge the validity of the complaints. But it found the preponderance of official inaction to be damning, a sign that the complaint system was an “ornamental component” of Customs and Border Protection “that carries no real weight in how the agency functions.” The report urges the agency to create a uniform and reliable procedure for victims to file complaints, to ensure that abuses are swiftly investigated and dealt with.

With more than 21,000 agents, the Border Patrol is one of the largest law-enforcement agencies in the country, and it is still growing. Yet it lacks many basic safeguards against abuse that would be demanded of any metropolitan police department.

The Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, and the head of Customs and Border Protection, Gil Kerlikowske, have pledged to make the agency more transparent and accountable. The report offers evidence of one lamentable area of failure — and a blueprint for action.

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