Blog: Civil-rights office deflects allegations of abuse by border agents (updated)

2012-12-10T14:03:00Z 2012-12-10T17:09:25Z Blog: Civil-rights office deflects allegations of abuse by border agents (updated)Tim Steller, Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 10, 2012 2:03 pm  • 

(Updated with staffing figures for the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties)

In Sunday's stories, I focused on the issue of accountability for Border Patrol agents who shoot people, finding that investigations of these incidents are shrouded in secrecy and take years.

There's another category of allegations I didn't touch on in the story: Allegations of abuse by Border Patrol agents in cases unrelated to shootings.

The Department of Homeland Security has an office, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, that receives complaints of abuse, and the Tucson-based organization No More Deaths has made ample use of it in recent years. They've complained especially about suspected abusive behavior by agents in the Border Patrol's detention facilities. 

I spoke with two No More Deaths volunteers, Sarah Roberts and Molly Little, who were main authors of the group's 2011 report, A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-Term U.S. Border Patrol Custody. They showed me report after report that they made to the DHS civil rights office, only to have that office ask the Tucson Sector Border Patrol to look into it. The Border Patrol would regularly find nothing wrong, Roberts and Miller said.

Data I received from DHS last week backs up their contention that the office has frequently asked the Border Patrol to investigate its own agents. In 2009, the office received 44 complaints about Customs and Border Protection officials; they referred 35 of those back to the agency to investigate, taking on only nine of them themselves.

That year, the office had a total of 85 staff members, 75 of them federal employees and 10 of them contract employees.

In 2010, the civil-rights office received 54 complaints about Customs and Border Protection officials. The office received 44 of those back to the agency to investigate. 

That year, the office had 109 employees, 99 of them federal staff and 10 of them contractors.

The latest year's figures, fiscal year 2011, turn those numbers on their head. Of the 95 complaints the office reported receiving, it referred only 27 back to the employee's agency. 

That year, the office had 112 staff members, 109 of them federal staffers and three of them contractors.

Little and Roberts remain concerned DHS and the Border Patrol doesn't grasp the problem of abuse and impunity that they laid out in their report.

"They're responding on a case-by-case basis to a situation that's pervasive," Little said.

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About this blog

When you're a reporter digging deep, you turn up a lot of dirt. But that doesn't mean you can put all the good dirt in the story.

I've found myself with a lot of extra, good dirt in my new role as senior reporter (hence, Señor Reporter), writing primarily for the Arizona Daily Star's Sunday paper.

Check in often, and let's see what we can turn up.

Contact Tim Steller at (520) 807-8427 or tsteller@tucson.com

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