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Several migrants are apprehended and searched by US Border Patrol agents in the early morning hours of May 12, 2021 in Rio Bravo, Texas, US. © 2021 John Lamparski/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – Newly obtained United States government documents detail over 160 internal reports of misconduct and abuse of asylum seekers at the hands of US officials, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The documents report abuse by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, Border Patrol agents, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, primarily between 2016 and 2021.  

The 26-page report, “‘They Treat You Like You Are Worthless’: Internal DHS Reports of Abuses by US Border Officials,” details internal reports made by asylum officers within US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) about the conduct of personnel in the immigration enforcement arms of their same parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Though heavily redacted, the reports, which Human Rights Watch obtained after litigation under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), include allegations of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, due process violations, harsh detention conditions, denial of medical care, and discriminatory treatment at or near the border.

“The conduct of border and immigration officers reported in these records is jaw-dropping,” said Clara Long, associate US director at Human Rights Watch. “These internal government documents make clear that reports of grievous abuses – assaults, sexual abuse, and discriminatory treatment by US agents – are an open secret within DHS.”

In September 2021, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, announced a swift disciplinary investigation into the “extremely troubling” footage of Border Patrol agents on horseback wielding long reins and chasing Black migrants from Haiti as well as an internal oversight of the agents’ conduct at the Del Rio migrant camp. DHS has not released any outcome of an investigation, which Mayorkas had promised would “be completed in days – not weeks.”

The documents Human Rights Watch obtained raise questions whether serious allegations, including of criminal conduct, reported internally are being effectively investigated.

In one example, the records show that a supervisor in the San Francisco Asylum Office communicated the following internally at DHS: “AO [asylum officer] [redacted] brought a serious matter to our attention just now: one of the applicants she interviewed today has a young child who was sexually molested by someone we believe to be a CBP or Border Patrol Officer. They were apprehended by Border Patrol, sent to the Ice Box [a border holding cell], then this occurred: the young girl was forced to undress and touched inappropriately by a guard in the Ice Box wearing green, with the nametag [redacted].” The documents, which were produced in response to a request for records held by USCIS, do not record how DHS responded to these allegations.

On September 28, Human Rights Watch provided DHS with summaries of 11 cases of abuse detailed in the FOIA documents, with a request for information about any investigations or disciplinary actions arising from the allegations. On October 12, Human Rights Watch provided DHS with additional details of concerns raised in the internal reports over violations of due process and dehumanizing treatment with a request for information about any training, investigations, or disciplinary actions arising from the allegations. DHS has not responded to either request.

“These records, which long predate the viral atrocities we witnessed against Black migrants in Del Rio, confirm what the UndocuBlack Network has long known to be true: that one-off solutions will not repair the systemic abuses DHS perpetrates against many migrants seeking protection,” said Breanne Palmer, interim policy and advocacy director of the UndocuBlack Network, with whom Human Rights Watch shared summaries of the records obtained.

Under the expedited removal process, when a person apprehended at the border or near a point of entry expresses a fear of returning to their country of origin, US law requires CBP to refer them to asylum officers for a “credible fear interview.” The interview determines whether the person might qualify for asylum or other protection. Most of the records appear to be based on information reported to asylum officers by asylum applicants in these interviews.

The records released to Human Rights Watch include what appears to be an internal US Citizenship and Immigration Services tally of 27 possible Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement due process violations, many of which describe border officials preventing would-be applicants from lodging asylum claims or compelling them to sign papers they did not understand. One, for example, says the “applicant testified that she told the immigration officers that she was afraid to return. They wrote down that she said she was not. The applicant stated that the immigration officers did not tell her what she was signing when they typed in her signature.”

In many of the records, the agency redacted sections of the documents containing crucial details such as dates, locations, and the nationality of the person who suffered abuse and did not provide appended documents. Human Rights Watch obtained the documents after litigation in federal court over a request it initially filed in 2015 and is considering a further appeal to press the government for greater transparency, including limiting redactions to those permitted under the Freedom of Information Act statute. 

“The Department of Homeland Security appears to have normalized shocking abuses by its border agencies,” Long said. “The Biden administration should not be making excuses for failures by DHS and its components, but rather – together with Congress – taking urgent steps to ensure that people victimized by US border and immigration agents, including on the basis of race, have access to justice and that this persistent pattern of abuse and misconduct ends.”

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