ACLU Demands Federal Investigation Into Charges of Abuse by Border Agents

May 10, 2012 3:11 pm

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Abuse of U.S. Citizens and Non-Citizens Alike Necessitates Greater Oversight and Accountability

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SAN DIEGO – The American Civil Liberties Union today demanded a federal investigation into allegations of rampant abuse of individuals, including U.S. citizens and legal residents, by Customs and Border Protection agents at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a complaint filed today with the Department of Homeland Security, the ACLU and its border affiliates in San Diego, Calif., Arizona, New Mexico and Texas document 11 instances in which Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents disregard the civil and human rights of individuals crossing the border in apparent violation of the U.S. Constitution, international law and agency guidelines. Most of the individuals complaining of abuse are U.S. citizens or are lawfully residing or visiting the U.S.

“There is simply no justification for the kind of needless abuse CBP officers inflict on many travelers,” said Sean Riordan, staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “Far too many travelers are told by CBP officers that they have no rights. But the government must comply with basic and constitutional rights even when it is policing the border. It is unacceptable that CBP has not established sufficient oversight and accountability mechanisms to prevent officers from physically assaulting, detaining and psychologically abusing travelers.”

The ACLU’s complaint includes evidence of excessive force; unwarranted, invasive and humiliating personal searches; unjustified and repeated detentions based on misidentification; and use of coercion to force individuals to surrender their legal rights, citizenship documents and property.

In one example, Hernan Cuevas, a Chilean businessman who was attempting to enter the U.S. with a valid visa, was strip-searched and chained to a metal bench for three hours without explanation. One CBP officer told him, “This is my country now and when you are here, you listen to me. I don’t like your kind that takes our jobs and uses our system…”

“I could not believe I was in the U.S. I was completely perplexed,” said Cuevas. “The incident was so bizarre that it was a perfect fit for a ‘banana republic,’ a corrupt place without democracy.”

Many of the testimonies collected by the ACLU include CBP agents physically attacking women and men, some of whom were handcuffed at the time. Testimonies include unnecessary and invasive searches, which left some affected individuals feeling as though they had been sexually assaulted.

The conduct of CBP officers at or near the points of entry along the U.S. border has come under scrutiny in recent years after two high-profile deaths. In May 2010, Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, a 42-year-old construction worker and father of five, died after being beaten and then tased by a group of up to 20 CBP officers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego. And in June 2010, Sergio Adrían Hernández Güereca, a 15-year-old boy, was fatally shot by a CBP officer after reportedly throwing rocks at officers near the El Paso Port of Entry. The Department of Justice last month announced it would not pursue criminal charges against the officer involved.

Despite there being fewer border apprehensions in 2011 than in any year since 1971, and despite border apprehensions dropping by 80 percent since 2000, the number of border patrol agents has more than doubled since 2004.

“There is an urgent need for CBP to be subjected to increased oversight and accountability in an effort to curb the abuses that are occurring regularly along the border,” said Judy Robinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “CBP officers are not exempt from adhering to basic constitutional requirements.”

The ACLU’s complaint calls for an investigation of each of the individual allegations of abuse, and calls for the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General to undertake a comprehensive investigation of ports of entry complaints and implement institutional changes in training, oversight and accountability that are necessary to prevent further abuses.

A copy of the ACLU complaint is available online at:

The complaint was filed by the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, the ACLU of Arizona, the ACLU of New Mexico, the ACLU of Texas, the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and the ACLU Human Rights Program.

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