A Look Into U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Mistreatment of Children

With more than 60,000 agents, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is the largest federal law enforcement agency in the United States. CBP includes the U.S. Border Patrol, which includes nearly 20,000 agents. CBP officials oversee land ports of entry, while Border Patrol agents patrol between ports. Collectively, these officials are often the first to encounter unaccompanied migrant children. If these officials suspect that the child has entered the United States without legal authorization, they take that child into custody.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, advocates documented and litigated the mistreatment of children in U.S. immigration enforcement custody. These battles culminated in a settlement agreement in a lawsuit called Flores v. Reno. Pursuant to that agreement, the U.S. government committed to treating detained migrant children with “dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability” and to detain them in the least restrictive setting.[1] Through subsequent laws, Congress required that CBP transfer unaccompanied children to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)—a non-law enforcement agency—within 72 hours of arrest, absent “exceptional circumstances.”[2] Likewise, DHS is required to safeguard minors’ safety by separating them from adult detainees at all times.[3]

CBP consistently fails to meet its obligations under the Flores settlement and federal law. In 2001, an investigation by the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General showed “deficiencies in the handing of juveniles . . . that could have potentially serious consequences for [their] well-being.”[4] In 2007, a federal judge in Texas entered a preliminary injunction after finding it was likely a group of minors could show that CBP’s detention facility was not in compliance with Flores.[5] In 2014, the National Immigrant Justice Center and the ACLU Border Litigation Project documented systemic abuses against 116 unaccompanied minors arrested or detained by CBP.[6]

In response to our FOIA request seeking records related to child abuse or mistreatment in DHS custody, CBP released about 15,700 pages of documents, along with 86 audio files (totaling approximately 1100 minutes) and 7 video files (totaling approximately 70 minutes). These documents include internal agency records recounting limited investigations into alleged child abuse and other CBP misconduct, as well as some supporting evidence compiled by officials in the course of these limited investigations.

These documents contain many stories told directly by children who experienced abuse by CBP officials. Click here for a video interview of a girl who describes how a Border Patrol agent unnecessarily forced her to fully undress upon apprehension. Her story is just one of many episodes, documented in these official government records, of egregious CBP misconduct and abuse of authority.

To view the documents and files obtained in the FOIA request, visit http://bit.ly/foiacbp.

[1] Flores v. Reno, No. cv-85-4544 (C.D. Cal. Jan 17, 1997).
[2] 8 U.S.C. § 1232(b)(3).
[3] See Homeland Security Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-296 (2002); William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-457 (2008).
[4] Office of the Inspector General Report, Report Number No. I-2001-009: Unaccompanied Juveniles in INS Custody (Sept. 28, 2001), https://oig.justice.gov/reports/INS/e0109/chapter1.htm.
[5] Bunikyte, ex rel. Bunikiene v. Chertoff, 2007 WL 1074070 (W.D. Tex. 2007).
[6] Nat’l Immigrant Just. Ctr. et al., Systemic Abuse of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (June 11, 2014), bit.ly/XqyyOt.

June 6, 2014

Coalition of immigration advocacy groups submits administrative complaint detailing 116 incidents of child abuse DHS oversight agencies, OIG & CRCL

June 12, 2014

OIG announces plans to “thoroughly investigate” the complaints.

October 6, 2014

OIG announces it has closed its investigation.

December 13, 2014

ACLU submits FOIA request regarding child abuse in CBP custody to DHS and CBP.

February 15, 2015

ACLU files lawsuit in federal district court as result of government’s failure to respond to the FOIA request

June 12, 2015

Government agencies begin to produce responsive records

March 31, 2016

The Court orders government to complete production of all responsive records no later than October 31, 2016.

February 2, 2017

Government moves for summary judgment, claiming DHS agencies have fulfilled FOIA obligations.

March 28, 2017

ACLU & Cooley LLP file opposition to the government’s motion and cross motion for summary judgment, alleging that government has not, in fact, complied with FOIA.

August 14, 2017

The Court issues first order on parties’ cross motions for summary judgment.

October 25, 2017

The government moves for reconsideration of the Court’s holding that the government must disclose the names of agents accused of misconduct.

November 1, 2017

The government begins to produce additional records responsive to the ACLU’s FOIA request in accordance with the Court’s August 2017 order.

January 2, 2018

All four DHS sub-agencies declare that production of responsive records is finally complete, just over three years after the ACLU’s initial FOIA request. The production totals over 33,000 pages.

March 22, 2018

The Court denies the government’s motion for reconsideration.

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

The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties fights for individual rights and fundamental freedoms for all through education, litigation, & policy advocacy.