For years, officers and agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the largest law enforcement agency in the country, have faced few consequences for mistreating migrants, even when their assaults were captured on film — even when they killed people. A new investigation from the Project On Government Oversight now shows that this lack of accountability has shielded some CBP agents from being held accountable for other unconscionable behavior as well. The investigation looks at two inspector general reports that show that CBP personnel and other law enforcement agents at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have faced minimal discipline for violence against their own domestic partners and family members and for sexual misconduct against their own colleagues.
This is not a case of a few bad apples. These latest revelations show that serious misconduct is prevalent within CBP, and that agency leaders at all levels have shielded officers and agents from facing accountability for their actions for years.
The agency’s handling of these allegations was shocking, and it reflects a broader culture at DHS and CBP that essentially permits agents to carry out physical abuse and harassment without consequence. Within hours of POGO publishing its investigation, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas responded to these revelations by promising a review of the employee misconduct discipline process.
But an internal review simply won’t cut it. The department has responded to horrible revelations in the past by promising an internal review and then failing to follow through. It is vital that Congress, which holds both subpoena power and the purse strings, take on the task of transforming the culture of impunity at DHS, and at Customs and Border Protection in particular.
Such oversight cannot stop at the agency’s discipline process for sexual misconduct and sexual abuse, or at the removal of its problematic and ineffective inspector general. Abuse of migrants and the broader public at the hands of CBP agents has been well documented, and the latest revelations make abundantly clear that the agency’s entire process for investigating and disciplining misconduct is utterly broken.
“The agency’s handling of these allegations was shocking, and it reflects a broader culture at DHS and CBP that essentially permits agents to carry out physical abuse and harassment without consequence.”
A draft inspector general report obtained by the Project On Government Oversight found that in 35 cases, law enforcement agents at DHS, most of whom were within CBP, had engaged in domestic violence — but most of those employees faced little discipline. In 30 cases, they were allowed to continue carrying government-issued firearms.
The lack of accountability didn’t stop there. While the draft report included several examples of the domestic abuse substantiated by the department, the published version had scrubbed some of the most disturbing details. Here’s a sample of what was withheld: A CBP officer was charged with assault after he punched his wife in the face. He admitted the assault in court papers but was not convicted. CBP suspended him for five days. Less than two years later, the agent assaulted another woman. CBP suspended him for 15 days. Then he returned to work, with his firearm.
A separate draft report by the inspector general, still languishing unpublished, found that more than 10,000 employees at the law enforcement components within DHS have experienced sexual harassment or misconduct. Of the nearly 250 cases where DHS paid out monetary settlements to employees who filed sexual harassment complaints, DHS failed to investigate the alleged perpetrators and took no disciplinary action in the vast majority of them. Given these findings, it’s no wonder that about half of surveyed CBP employees do not believe officials at all levels are held accountable for their conduct.
If this is how the agency handles misconduct carried out against its own employees, how does it handle abuse of migrants and other members of the public?
DHS leaders cannot continue to employ the tired playbook of promising swift investigations without following through, as has been the case with the agency’s slow-moving probe into Border Patrol agents’ violence in Del Rio, Texas, last fall.
Congress must step up and hold DHS and CBP accountable. There are nearly 100 congressional committees or subcommittees that claim oversight of DHS. Yet beyond scrutiny of the heart-breaking debacle of family separation and a handful of investigations over the last several years, no committee has seriously, rigorously, and consistently overseen our nation’s largest law enforcement body.
Congress has, however, approved massive increases in spending at CBP with virtually no strings attached, and many members of Congress continue to demand increased numbers of Border Patrol agents without any corresponding accountability mechanisms.
“If Congress doesn't force change, we will continue to learn of cases of abuse against agency employees and the public that the agency was created to secure and protect.”
The process for investigating and disciplining CBP officers must be completely overhauled and underscores why external oversight is vital. CBP employs Border Patrol agents on “critical incident teams” to investigate violence by their fellow officers, despite evidence that these units have engaged in cover-ups and corrupted investigations. And as POGO’s reporting uncovered, CBP officials pressure local law enforcement agencies not to pursue criminal investigations of CBP agents. Even an external review commissioned by DHS itself found that the lack of adequate and timely investigation of serious misconduct “leaves CBP vulnerable to a corruption scandal that could potentially threaten the security of our nation.”
DHS's culture of abuse with impunity is ugly and abhorrent. If Congress doesn't force change, we will continue to learn of cases of abuse against agency employees and the public that the agency was created to secure and protect. Congress has to make a choice: Will it stand up for abuse survivors and their families or continue to let atrocious conduct persist under the shield of border enforcement?