The Washington Post

Unaccompan­ied

Abuse of unaccompan­ied minors between 2009 and 2014 is alleged

- BY ANTONIO OLIVO antonio.olivo@washpost.com

minors who crossed the U.S.- Mexico border were repeatedly abused by border agents, an ACLU report alleges.

Unaccompan­ied minors who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border during a historic wave of migration earlier this decade were repeatedly beaten, sexually abused, and deprived of food and medical care by federal border agents, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released Wednesday.

About 30,000 pages of documents obtained by the ACLU through an open-records lawsuit depict a gantlet of alleged mistreatme­nt for the tens of thousands of children who arrived mainly from Central America between 2009 and 2014, during the Obama administra­tion. Many were seeking asylum in the United States after fleeing death threats and violence in their homelands.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents allegedly used stun guns on the minors for amusement or punishment, kicked them and threatened to either rape or kill them. The ACLU report — which is based on emails, complaint forms and investigat­ive reports — says agents routinely kept minors in detention cells with frigid temperatur­es, forcing them to sleep on concrete floors.

When the complaints were filed with the Department of Homeland Security, they were largely dismissed, the ACLU said, revealing what the advocacy group described as “a culture of impunity” among federal government agents charged with protecting immigrant children in their custody.

“You have no clear sense of how or whether these agents were reprimande­d,” said Astrid Dominguez, director of the ACLU’s Regional Center for Border Rights.

CBP officials called the organizati­on’s conclusion­s “unfounded and baseless,” noting that most of the claims cited in the report were ruled unfounded by DHS.

“These allegation­s were investigat­ed and dismissed by the Office of the Inspector General for a reason,” DHS spokeswoma­n Katie Waldman said. “Packaging dozens of patently baseless allegation­s and calling it a ‘report’ does not change the fact it is just a collection of patently baseless allegation­s.”

The report ignores improvemen­ts in oversight made since 2014, including stricter guidelines on use of force and a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse, CBP said. It also disregards the fact that the DHS inspector general’s office, responding to previous complaints of abuse, conducted unannounce­d visits to 41 CBP facilities in 2014 and found no impropriet­ies, the agency said.

“CBP takes seriously all allegation­s of misconduct, but without new specifics is unable commence reasonable steps to examine these assertions and address the accusation­s levied,” Dan Hetlage, a CBP spokesman, said in a statement.

The ACLU initially sought the documents used in the report in a public-records request. When that request was denied, the organizati­on filed the lawsuit, eventually gaining access to the records.

Nearly 134,000 unaccompan­ied minors have entered DHS custody since the fall of 2014, according to federal statistics.

Recently, the Trump administra­tion has proposed new regulation­s for how those minors should be treated, including stripping some federal asylum protection­s from them if they reconnect with an adult relative in the United States, which DHS argues would mean they are no longer “unaccompan­ied” minors.

ACLU attorney Mitra Ebadolahi said the records obtained through the lawsuit indicate that DHS investigat­ors often took agents’ word over the children’s, in one case closing an investigat­ion after one group of agents said they couldn’t remember their accuser.

Some of the reports were filed by service providers who saw bruises on the children or heard their stories.

“These are allegation­s that span across multiple years, multiple states, involving children from different background­s,” Ebadolahi said. “The consistenc­y to them, to us, indicates that there’s truth there.”

The report describes a pattern of behavior that ranges from “neglectful” to “sadistic.”

In one case, an agent allegedly pushed his stun gun into a boy’s stomach, shocking him, then kneed him twice in the same spot.

In another, a 16-year-old girl being held just outside Phoenix claimed that an agent “forcibly spread her legs and touched her private parts so hard that she screamed.”

One boy was allegedly forced to strip down to his boxers inside one of the cold detention cells, widely known among undocument­ed immigrants as “hieleras,” or “freezers.” Another teen, who swam across the Rio Grande, alleged that he was placed in a frigid cell while still wearing wet clothes.

A 16-year-old girl held in a California detention center with the baby she brought with her recounted how an agent stood at the cell door and calmly threatened to rape her and then place her child in foster care.

“We saw so many reports of physical abuse, both violent and humiliatin­g,” said Nabihah Maqbool, a University of Chicago Law School student who helped compile the report. Maqbool cited claims of minors being forced to sign voluntary deportatio­n orders under the threat of rape or injury and of being denied medical care.

The ACLU claimed that CBP forces have grown steadily over the past decade without proper training. Currently, the agency has about 21,000 border patrol agents, up from 17,500 in 2008, federal statistics show.

Fatigue among agents in the face of so many arriving unaccompan­ied minors could have also led to misconduct, the report says.

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