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US: Stop Using Untrained, Abusive Agencies at Protests

Immigration, Border Control Have History of Abuse, Lack Accountability

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers conduct a targeted enforcement operation in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. on February 9, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – The United States federal government should immediately stop deploying federal agents without relevant training or those from abusive agencies to protests across the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The protests have focused on deadly police violence against Black people and structural racism in the United States.

On June 2, 2020, the US government deployed officers from nearly a dozen federal agencies to control protests in Washington, DC, and other cities. Many of these agencies were unlikely to provide training in crowd control, increasing the risk of abuse. The deployment of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raised particular concerns due to their histories of human rights violations and lack of accountability.

“Border Patrol agents have a disturbing record of killing people, including US citizens, with impunity, and ICE has a history of violating detainees’ rights,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US program director at Human Rights Watch. “As people protest police brutality and encounter new police abuses, these agents risk infusing more danger into volatile situations.”

The Customs and Border Control acting commissioner, Mark Morgan, announced on June 4 in a tweet that his agency was deploying agents and aircraft across the country to work with local law enforcement. ICE confirmed to Roll Call that it had also deployed agents to work with local law enforcement agencies in response to “civil unrest.”

A 2014 independent review of 67 incidents in which Border Patrol agents used deadly force found that “Agents have deliberately stepped in the path of cars, apparently to justify shooting at the drivers and have fired in frustration at people throwing rocks from the Mexican side of the border.”

One policy organization found that of 809 complaints of alleged abuse lodged against Border Patrol agents between January 2009 and January 2012, 97 percent resulted in “no action taken” by the agency. A June 2015 interim report of the Customs and Border Protection Integrity Advisory Panel similarly found that “CBP did not have sufficient IA [internal affairs] investigators to investigate these incidents, nor until recently did its IA investigators have authority to conduct investigations involving potential criminal misconduct in the exercise of use of force by CBP’s LEOs [Law Enforcement Officers.]” 

A 2011 study by the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute on CBP workforce integrity found that its disciplinary system fails to “foster timely discipline or exoneration .” Five years later, the Homeland Security Integrity Advisory Council’s 2016 Integrity Advisory Panel found that the agency’s disciplinary system remained “broken” and its “disciplinary process takes far too long to be an effective deterrent.” 

Incidents involving use of force by firearm have declined in recent years, but there has been an increase in dangerous and sometimes lethal car pursuits by Border Patrol agents, even as police agencies have placed more restrictions on when to pursue fleeing suspects. The agency has not updated its use-of-force statistics since fiscal year 2018.

Residents of border communities have complained repeatedly about racial profiling by Border Patrol agents. A Justice Department “guidance” limiting the use of race, national origin, and other factors in making routine or spontaneous law enforcement decisions, such as traffic stops, has a broad exception for interdiction activities at the border.

In Washington State, the agency settled a 2012 lawsuit that accused the Border Patrol of failing to establish reasonable suspicion before stopping drivers in the Olympic Peninsula and seemingly making decisions to stop people “based on nothing other than the ethnic and/or racial appearance of a vehicle’s occupants.” In 2019, two women, both US citizens, filed a lawsuit alleging racial profiling after Border Patrol agents held them for 40 minutes in a parking lot in Montana after hearing them speak Spanish.

In 2019, ProPublica revealed a secret Facebook group in which current and former Border Patrol agents joked about migrant deaths and made racist and sexist jokes about migrants and US elected officials. In 2019, agents were revealed to have harassed, surveilled, interrogated, and detained journalists, lawyers, and activists at the US-Mexico border, interfering with their freedom of speech and movement.

Border Patrol agents have also failed to uphold and enforce US asylum laws, in their repeated failures to properly identify people who are seeking asylum. Asylum officers within the US Citizenship and Immigration Services and their union have repeatedly provided internal reports on multiple cases of intimidation, verbal, and even physical abuse against migrants by Border Patrol officers.

ICE also has a long record of rights violations against migrants in custody. ICE is responsible for maintaining a sprawling detention system in which the United States holds many people, with no individualized consideration of whether detention is necessary, and in which systemic failures in medical care have led to preventable deaths. People in detention, including transgender women, have long reported sexual harassment and abuse that has gone unaddressed. ICE has arrested or attempted to arrest people at courthouses, affecting domestic violence survivors’ safety and due process rights in general.

“The US government should be setting an example at this crucial moment by holding its law enforcement officers, including Border Patrol and ICE agents, accountable for abuses,” Austin-Hillery said. “Deploying abusive agencies to police protests instead sends a message of utter contempt for protesters’ rights and well-being.”

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