UPDATE: On May 23, CBP issued a statement calling our report unfounded. Our point-by-point rebuttal is here.
On a December morning, Border Patrol agents confronted a 15-year-old high school student named Jahveel Ocampo at a rest stop in California while she and her friends were on their way to the mountains to see the winter’s first snow. Jahveel was a young child when she came to the United States from Mexico with her parents, and she grew up undocumented in southern California. She was a mother to a 2-year-old child, who was a U.S. citizen.
An agent in a blue jacket asked whether Jahveel was an “illegal.” He handcuffed her and drove her to a Border Patrol station in the border town of Campo. There, he slapped her twice on the buttocks and ordered her into a cell. He and another male agent told her to sign an “order of voluntary departure,” a deportation order. She refused.
Then the threats began. One agent said, in Spanish, according to the complaint she filed later, “Right now, we close the door, we rape you and f*** you. If you cooperate with us, we can deport you to Mexico. Otherwise, we will take you to jail and deport your entire family.” They told her that her child would end up in foster care.
Terrified and alone, Jahveel signed.
If you assumed this abuse happened during the Trump administration, think again. Jahveel was threatened in 2009 by President Obama’s Border Patrol, and her treatment was not an isolated incident. Her case is part of a pattern of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by Customs and Border Protection officials against child immigrants that existed long before President Trump emboldened the agency by unleashing its officers to enforce his draconian immigration policies.
We have received more than 30,000 pages of internal government documents detailing this abuse between 2009 and 2014 throughout the southern border region. These records, obtained through an ACLU Freedom of Information Act request and subsequent litigation, offer a glimpse into an immigration enforcement system that had been plagued by brutality and lawlessness long before Trump was elected.
Customs and Border Protection — the Border Patrol’s parent agency — is now the largest law enforcement organization in the United States, with more than 60,000 employees and a fiscal year 2018 budget of $16.4 billion. And while the number of people crossing the border without documents has dropped significantly, Trump has said he wants to hire thousands more Border Patrol agents while deploying the National Guard to the border to bolster its forces. Now the federal government has created a policy of separating immigrant children from their parents, which could dramatically increase the number of minors encountering immigration officials by themselves and create potential for expanded abuses.
Our FOIA request yielded documents from four agencies in the Department of Homeland Security. On Wednesday, the ACLU and the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago School of Law released a report that includes documents from one agency, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, a DHS oversight agency. We will release additional documents from the other three agencies in the coming months.
The records show that the leadership at Customs and Border Protection were well aware of the allegations of unlawful child abuse — including people still now directing the agency — yet there is no indication that any individual official was ever held accountable for abuse.
In one complaint we obtained, a Border Patrol agent grabbed a girl he claimed was running away, handcuffed her to someone else and dragged them together along the ground, causing “two bruises on her neck, scratches to her shoulders and arms, and thorns in her head.” A 16-year-old recounted that a Border Patrol agent threw him down before he used his boot to smash his head into the ground.
Other children allege that agents assaulted them with their feet, fists, flashlights, and Tasers. In one case, an agent ran over a 17-year-old with a patrol vehicle and then got out and punched the child in the head and body. Often, children noted that other agents witnessed the abuse or saw the injuries but refused them medical attention. In one case, agents accused a pregnant minor of lying about the pain — which turned out to be labor contractions preceding a stillbirth.
The abuse was also sexual. During an arrest in the desert in Phoenix, Arizona, an agent grabbed a child’s buttocks and only stopped when she screamed and another agent approached. In another incident, a 16-year-old girl reported that a Border Patrol agent forcefully spread her legs and touched her genitals so hard she screamed in pain.
President Trump was endorsed by the Border Patrol union, which had never previously endorsed a presidential candidate. If the abuses were this bad under Obama when the Border Patrol described itself as constrained, imagine how it must be now under Trump, who vowed to unleash the agents to do their jobs.