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Southwest Border Tour Excludes Border Communities

Mitra Ebadolahi,
Border Litigation Project Staff Attorney, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties
James Lyall,
Border Litigation Staff Attorney,
ACLU of Arizona
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January 27, 2014

Newly confirmed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson wrapped up a two-day visit to the southwest border region last week, starting in McAllen, Texas, and ending in Tucson, Ariz. The stated purpose of the trip was to “tour border operations, receive briefings on the department’s efforts to secure the border while facilitating lawful travel and trade, and meet with state and local law enforcement officials and other stakeholders.”

“Stakeholders” largely excluded from Johnson’s itinerary, however, were border residents—many of whom are increasingly outraged by the militarization of their communities and widespread civil rights violations by Border Patrol agents. By sidestepping the concerns of border communities and focusing on a narrow conception of “border security,” Secretary Johnson missed an important opportunity to learn about what life in the region is actually like.

In fact, Johnson narrowly missed the chance to discuss the darker side of border militarization with actual border communities. After a short stop in the Rio Grande Valley, the Secretary arrived at U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Tucson Sector headquarters just hours after residents of Arivaca, Ariz., held a news conference there, denouncing the Border Patrol for violating their rights and ignoring their concerns. Last month, the same residents began petitioning for the removal of one of three local Border Patrol checkpoints that surround their town, citing ongoing civil rights abuses and harassment as well as harm to property values, tourism and quality of life resulting from the overwhelming Border Patrol presence. Residents describe being told by agents, “You have no rights here.”

Experiences like these have become increasingly common throughout the southwest. Just a few months prior to Johnson’s trip, the ACLU’s Border Litigation Project embarked on its own border tour, meeting with community groups and human rights advocates from San Diego to El Paso. We heard stories of immigrant communities afraid to report crime for fear of local police collaborating with Border Patrol; of individuals fleeing violence and persecution who were discouraged by CBP officials from pursuing legitimate asylum claims; and of agricultural workers trapped on farms, unable to seek medical care or report labor abuses without risking apprehension. Though the issue of rights violations by CBP and Border Patrol did not arise in the course of Secretary Johnson’s trip, it would not have taken much digging for him to find them.

The ACLU, too, has received a growing number of reports of rights violations from border residents, including the examples mentioned below:

  • John Forrey, a southern Arizona photographer who was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint near Tombstone, Ariz. When he did not respond to a question unrelated to his residence status, an agent pointed a gun at his face while other agents forcibly pulled him from his vehicle. He was handcuffed and detained for 45 minutes while agents searched his vehicle over his objections.
  • Clarisa Christiansen, who was pulled over by Border Patrol nearly 40 miles north of the border on her way home from picking up her children from elementary school. When she asked for the reason she was pulled over, an agent threatened to cut her out of her seatbelt with a knife if she did not exit her vehicle. After the agents left, she discovered that her tire had been slashed. Her modest request for $50 to replace the tire has been ignored.
  • Isidora Lopez-Venegas, who along with her autistic U.S. citizen son was arrested by Border Patrol in southern California. Agents threatened that if she refused to agree to “voluntary departure,” she could be detained for several months. They did not tell her she could have been released on her own recognizance or bond if she declined to sign the voluntary departure paperwork. Under sustained pressure, she signed the forms and was expelled from the country. Her U.S. citizen son was effectively expelled with her.
  • Laura Mireles, a U.S. citizen with a disability who suffered physical injuries after being pulled over and thrown to the ground without provocation by a CBP official in Brownsville, Texas. Confused, scared, and crying, she asked the agent to explain what was happening. He responded by threatening to hit her if she didn’t “shut up.”
  • Jane Doe, a U.S citizen who was subjected to a strip search, multiple genital and cavity searches, a forced bowel movement, an X-ray, and a CT scan following a false alert by a CBP service canine at an El Paso border crossing.
  • Stuart Loew, an Arizona rancher who was detained at gunpoint on his ranch while agents demanded that he provide identification.

In addition, tens of thousands of individuals have reported abuses in short-term Border Patrol custody, including individuals held in freezing cold cells, denied food, water and medical care, and deported without their money and belongings. These and other abuses have been consistently documented in at least seven major reports in the past three years alone, providing overwhelming evidence of systemic, longstanding human rights violations.

These are stories that Secretary Johnson, Congress and the rest of the country need to hear. As head of DHS, Johnson has the responsibility and ability to change the culture of impunity that has been allowed to flourish at CBP and led to many of these abuses. All of these problems are exacerbated by inadequate training, the absence of meaningful oversight and accountability, and a persistent aversion to transparency within DHS.

We hope these issues will be on the agenda when Johnson speaks with the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee on February 12. Secretary Johnson may have missed the opportunity to hear from border communities this time around, but that should not stop him from working to rein in an agency out of control.

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