Government documents show Customs & Border Protection Officials Have Abused Migrant Children

In 2014, the ACLU Border Litigation Project and partner organizations filed an administrative complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on behalf of 116 children who had reported abuse while in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody. These complaints detailed, for example, denial of medical care; verbal threats; physical and sexual abuse; and inhumane detention conditions.

Such complaints were consistent with hundreds of similar complaints dating at least as far back as 2008, documented in human rights and immigration policy reports. Some such reports include:

The DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG), an oversight agency, initially responded that it would thoroughly investigate the 116 complaints. Less than four months later, however, OIG inexplicably closed its investigation.

In response, the ACLU’s Border Litigation Project—a joint project of the ACLU Foundations of Arizona and San Diego & Imperial Counties—filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to determine the scope of child abuse complaints and what investigation, if any, the government had undertaken.

The government did not timely respond to this FOIA request. Consequently, in February 2015, the ACLU, along with Cooley LLP, filed suit.

As a result of this litigation, the government has now produced over 30,000 pages of documents from four DHS sub-agencies within DHS: (1) the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL); (2) U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol’s parent agency; (3) OIG; and (4) U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE).

These records show a complete lack of respect not only for the fundamental human rights of thousands of children, but also for the immigration laws and procedures that Congress enacted. They also reflect systemic failures throughout DHS to hold abusive officials accountable.

Here, all records received by the ACLU in the course of this FOIA litigation are organized and published by producing agency.

The records include thousands of pages of narrative complaints, written by minors and by immigration advocates, detailing instances of harm. Also included are the DHS oversight agencies’ investigative reports, which demonstrate that complaints are routinely closed or deemed “unsubstantiated” without any meaningful investigation. Additionally, the records include audio files, checklists, notes, and photos from Border Patrol facilities inspections, which underscore CBP’s consistent failure to respect children’s dignity and human rights.

Records received from each DHS sub-agency can be accessed here:

Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the ACLU has obtained over 30,000 pages of government documentation revealing evidence of abuse and mistreatment of unaccompanied migrant children by U.S. federal law enforcement agents at the Southern Border between 2009 and 2014. The documents expose, not only extensive and varied forms of abuse of children by U.S. government employees, but a remarkable failure of effective investigation, data collection, or accountability for these fundamental human rights abuses. Despite laws and policies in place to protect children at our borders, inadequate enforcement and oversight mechanisms have left this vulnerable group unprotected and without access to justice.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a sub-agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), apprehends and detains migrant children at the U.S. border.

CBP Office of Field Operations and Border Patrol are empowered to apprehend and detain migrant children for a limited period of time to determine whether the child should be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or can be immediately removed from the United States.

Children apprehended at the U.S. southern border are overwhelmingly fleeing violence and poverty.

Children crossing the United States’ southern border are primarily from Mexico and the “Northern Triangle” region of Central America. This region, which includes Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, is considered one of the most violent in the world. Children from these countries primarily migrate to escape gang violence, social unrest and poverty, often in hopes of reunifying with family in the U.S.

The U.S. government, through the CBP Office of Field Operations and Border Patrol, holds these children in temporary detention centers before deporting or transferring them to longer-term detention. Conditions and terms of detention of these children are regulated by law.

Once children are apprehended by the CBP Office of Field Operations or Border Patrol, they are placed in temporary detention centers. By law, unaccompanied migrant children may only be held in custody for 72 hours and are entitled to legal protections, which include: dignified and respectful treatment; safe, secure and clean facilities; adequate food and drinking water; and proper medical care. The Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990 also requires personnel working in federal facilities to report possible child abuse to law enforcement, child protective services or the FBI.

Legal protections for migrant children in CBP custody are ignored by officials. Children report sexual and physical abuse and deprivation of basic needs such as food and water.

The documents obtained reveal rampant abuse, mistreatment and violence of children in U.S. custody. Children describe being stomped on, punched, kicked, run over and tased by CBP officials. They report verbal abuse, being called a “dog”, “piece of crap”, “son of a bitch”, “prostitute”, being told they will “contaminate this country”. They report being deprived of food and water and held in freezing and unsanitary cells. Children report being threatened with rape, being made to strip down naked, and being touched and fondled by CBP officials.

Children’s complaints of abuse are ignored and mishandled, allowing agents to act with impunity.

Abuses of migrant children in U.S. custody are only reported internally to sub-agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) and Office of Inspector General (OIG). Records of the investigations conducted by these sub-agencies indicate systemic failures at effective investigation, including lack of independent collection of evidence, ineffective reporting systems, and repeated closure of investigations due to delays and unreliable record keeping. The records provide no indication of remedial or disciplinary measures being taken by DHS to deter or address these abuses.

Records received from each DHS sub-agency can be accessed here: