Border Agents Charged with Abusing U.S. Citizens and Non-Citizens Alike

In an alarming number of cases, Customs and Border Protection agents are using excessive force and ignoring due process at ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border, charged the ACLU in an administrative complaint sent yesterday to the Department of Homeland Security.

The letter cites eleven testimonies 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 & 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.”

A number of very serious incidents have drawn public awareness to the conduct of CBP officers at or near the ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border recently.  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 twenty CBP officers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego.  The family of Hernandez-Rojas believes his death was due to excessive force, and filed a lawsuit against CBP.  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 ACLU administrative letter 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 detained for over three hours, without explanation.  One CBP officer told him, “I don’t give a fuck of your educated manners and all your corporate bullshit.  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 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 included 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 letter calls for an investigation of each of the individual allegations of abuse.  It also calls for the Department of Homeland Security 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.

The authors of the letter include the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, the ACLU of Arizona, the ACLU of New Mexico, the ACLU of Texas, the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and the ACLU’s Human Rights Program.

# # #