Border Patrol agents rarely removed or terminated for wrongdoing, according to internal report

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Throughout 2020, U.S. Border Patrol agents were found to have assaulted people, engaged in corruption and broken rules on alcohol and drug use, such as driving under the influence, according to a new report.

In the vast majority of cases, the agents were disciplined with a written reprimand or counseling, the report said. Fewer than 2% of complaints of Border Patrol misconduct resulted in agents being removed from their posts and fewer than 4% lost their jobs, according to the report on disciplinary action released Thursday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency overseeing the Border Patrol.

Immigrant advocates point to the report as proof that Border Patrol agents are rarely seriously disciplined for wrongdoing, something they’ve complained about for years. Border Patrol officials have said the low disciplinary numbers are a result of agents adhering to best practices.

"When people perceive they can get away with this type of misconduct, they're going to continue doing it," said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, a group of more than 60 organizations that advocate for immigrants and border residents. "It's part of the culture."

The report also showed agents with the Office of Field Operations, which monitor traffic at ports of entry, tallied 2,094 disciplinary actions compared with 1,721 for Border Patrol agents. Office of Field Operations agents also were punished largely with reprimands (485) and counseling (1,200) rather than removals (46) or probationary termination (50), according to the report.

In all, there were 201 arrests of agents and officials within Customs and Border Protection in fiscal year 2020 on charges ranging from assaults and civil rights violations to driving under the influence and public urination, the report said. That's down from 232 arrests in fiscal year 2019.

The Border Patrol declined an interview request for the report.

"CBP prides itself on integrity, but there can be no integrity if the agency is not willing to address systemic impunity, beginning with their allowance of Border Patrol to investigate its own agents in use-of-force incidents," said Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego, an immigrant advocacy group. "That is, at a minimum, a conflict of interest and, more often, obstruction of justice."

The 32-page report comes as advocates have been calling for more accountability from the Border Patrol and have voiced widespread frustration that the administration of President Joe Biden hasn't effectively made the nation's largest law enforcement agency any more transparent and accountable than under his predecessor, President Donald Trump.

Nearly three months after U.S. officials vowed to conduct a "swift" investigation into mounted Border Patrol agents who confronted Haitian refugees trying to cross into Del Rio, Texas, in September, the investigation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Professional Responsibility remains open, frustrating advocates pushing for more accountability.

The images of Border Patrol on horseback repelling the migrants as they crossed the Rio Grande on foot sparked a national outcry and led Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to pledge to a House panel in September that an investigation into the incident would be completed within days.

“This couldn’t have been a more visible case because of video evidence, and it also made it to the highest levels,” said Chris Rickerd, a Texas-based consultant on border policy and longtime advocate for greater Border Patrol accountability. “I’m stunned that they have not been more transparent about exactly what the delay is.”

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents on horseback try to stop Haitian migrants from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 19, 2021.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents on horseback try to stop Haitian migrants from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 19, 2021.

In October, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform also released a report detailing how many Border Patrol agents who posted violent and offensive Facebook posts were allowed to continue working and how discipline imposed on most of those agents was significantly reduced from the recommendation made by Customs and Border Protection's Discipline Review Board.

"CBP’s failure to prevent these violent and offensive statements by its own agents or impose adequate discipline creates a serious risk that this behavior will continue," U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the committee's chairwoman, said in a statement.

According to the disciplinary report, allegations of misconduct by Border Patrol or other Customs and Border Protection officials are filed through Customs and Border Protection's Joint Intake Center (JIC) or the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General. The more serious cases, such as shootings or assaults, are classified as "criminal misconduct," while lesser offenses are labeled "administrative misconduct."

Of the 7,113 complaints that came into the intake center in fiscal year 2020, 789, or 11%, were categorized as criminal misconduct, while 3,351, or 46%, were deemed administrative misconduct, according to the report.

Efrén Olivares, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, applauded the release of the report, calling it a "good and welcomed development." But he said it shows that excessive use of force by agents often doesn't rise up to the level of disciplinary action.

A key issue is that officials within Border Patrol often are allowed to downplay discipline for agents, Olivares said. As long as the current system remains in place, agents will continue to abuse their power, he said.

"These disciplinary actions have not done anything to fix the problem of the culture of impunity within the agency," Olivares said. "What has been done so far is not working."

Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Border Patrol agents rarely fired for misconduct amid calls for reform

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