Guest Commentary: Addressing Racialized Violence Against Migrants Requires a Complete Overhaul of Customs and Border Protection


Absent deep reforms, Border Patrol’s long history of racist, violent abuse means inhumanity like that displayed in Del Rio, Texas will continue to repeat itself.

By Shaw Drake and Kate Huddleston

The latest violent imagery to emerge from Border Patrol’s actions at the U.S.-Mexico border warrants not only outrage and immediate action, but also deep reforms to an entrenched culture of abuse at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the federal law enforcement agency that includes the sub-agency Border Patrol. One video from Del Rio, Texas shows a Border Patrol officer telling a Haitian migrant, “This is why your country’s shit, because you use your women for this!” This abhorrent comment is not an aberration: CBP has long had a pervasive culture of cruelty and dehumanization of migrants that includes this kind of — often anti-immigrant and racist — verbal abuse. The Biden administration must ensure CBP personnel treat people with dignity and humanity.

Narrow investigations and hollow assurances are not an adequate response to Border Patrol’s horrifying treatment and verbal abuse of Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas. President Biden must immediately prioritize a systemic overhaul of CBP, including fundamental reforms of its use of force policies, hiring and disciplinary practices, and complaint mechanism. In light of Border Patrol’s long-standing failures, President Biden should oppose any move to reward the agency with increased funding. And Congress, for its part, should also be shrinking the agency’s budget, not contemplating any increase.

Every day, CBP carries out U.S. border policy and interacts with migrants through the filter of an agency culture steeped in cruelty, xenophobia and racism, violent inhumanity, and impunity. On rare occasions, the agency’s abusive actions are caught on camera. But images of CBP tear gassing families, surveillance video of a child dying on the floor of a Border Patrol facility, or horse-mounted agents menacing migrants captured on camera tell only a small part of the long history of the agency’s violent actions, and the lack of accountability with which they have been met.

The Border Patrol, initially a small agency, was established in an anti-immigrant atmosphere in 1924. It employed white supremacists, including Ku Klux Klan members, from the outset, and its early history included regular beatings, shootings, and hangings of migrants. Now, after rapid expansion in the early 2000s due to unprecedented funding, Border Patrol’s ranks include nearly 20,000 agents, making it the nation’s largest law enforcement agency. It is also the least accountable.

At least 191 people have died following encounters with Border Patrol in the last decade. Six of these deaths were caused by Border Patrol agents shooting across the border into Mexico — yet no agent was held accountable for the killings. The agency lacks basic accountability practices: No agent has ever been convicted of criminal wrongdoing while on duty, despite deaths in custody and uses of excessive, deadly force. The agency’s discipline system is broken. As James Tomsheck, CBP’s former internal affairs chief, has described, the agency “goes out of its way to evade legal restraints” and is “clearly engineered to interfere with [oversight] efforts to hold the Border Patrol accountable.”

Between just 2019 and 2020, the ACLU filed 13 administrative complaints with internal oversight bodies, documenting hundreds of cases of CBP abuse–including of asylum seekers, families, pregnant persons, and children, among other misconduct. Existing accountability mechanisms have failed to prevent abuses or adequately hold agents to account in ways that would deter future misconduct.

Border Patrol’s abuses are also not limited to the border itself–and have particularly targeted communities of color in the United States. The agency deploys its massive police force across the country where agents profile, surveil, and militarize U.S. communities. Just last year, Border Patrol agents terrorized and kidnapped protesters from the streets of Portland after deployment to Black Lives Matter protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder, and sent sniper units to George Floyd’s burial service with authority to use deadly force.

Verbal abuse of migrants is not unique to the mistreatment documented in Del Rio. In 2019, the ACLU received reports from migrants that detailed verbal abuse by Border Patrol agents. The abuse included bullying, harassment, threats, racism, and misstatements about U.S immigration law. Reported abuse was in line with that in the Del Rio video: For example, migrants described Border Patrol agents calling them derogatory terms and making comments such as, “I’ve fucking had it with you, this is why you guys don’t advance in your country.”

As the disturbing videos from Del Rio show, verbal abuse often accompanies agents’ physical violence. For example, a Border Patrol agent who pleaded guilty in 2019 to repeatedly hitting a migrant with a truck sent text messages in which he described migrants as “disgusting subhuman shit unworthy of being kindling in a fire.” His attorney defended the xenophobic messages as “part of the agency’s culture” and “commonplace.”

Border Patrol’s abuse often targets those who are particularly vulnerable. In 2014, more than 50 children reported verbal abuse. “You’re the garbage that contaminates this country,” one agent told a child. Children have reported that CBP has called them a wide range of derogatory names Migrants also have reported numerous highly derogatory anti-LGBTQ comments.

The agency’s long-entrenched culture of violence and abuse toward migrants is completely contrary to the basic dignity and respect with which all migrants — and anyone who encounters law enforcement — should be afforded.

The Biden administration cannot reward these kinds of human rights abuses by federal law enforcement officers nor allow them to continue. The administration must reject Border Patrol efforts for increased funding and must undertake a complete overhaul of CBP policy and practices, including:

  • Reforming CBP’s use of force standards, including through public policies and robust transparency requirements for use-of-force incidents and investigations;
  • A moratorium on new Border Patrol hires;
  • Expanded training, particularly cultural competence and bias/anti-racism training;
  • New public disciplinary guidelines that mirror best practices in other law enforcement agencies; and
  • The creation of a publicly accessible national database of complaints and written resolutions.

We laid out these and other detailed recommendations before the start of this administration. CBP’s rampant abuses are doomed to repeat themselves absent robust reforms.

Agents domineered over migrants, menacing them with horses and lariats and making derogatory comments in Del Rio with the eyes of the country upon them. But agents have acted this way with impunity for many years out of the public view — and it is past time for these racist and anti-immigrant abuses to end.

Shaw Drake , Staff Attorney and Policy Counsel, Border and Immigrants’ Rights, ACLU of Texas

Kate Huddleston , Equal Justice Works Fellow, ACLU of Texas


About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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22 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Addressing Racialized Violence Against Migrants Requires a Complete Overhaul of Customs and Border Protection”

      1. Keith Olsen

        horse-mounted agents menacing migrants captured on camera

        Yes, it didn’t mention actual whipping.  Maybe the press is finally backing off the false narrative.

        So David, are you also backing off your comment that you made the other day?

        David Greenwald September 23, 2021 at 1:35 pm

        but of course they were used as whips
        This is from the FOP: “For all you Twitter warriors out there: these are NOT whips. And no, Border Patrol agents are NOT “whipping” people. They are REINS… Stay with us here, like a steering wheel is used to drive a car, the reins are used to “drive” the horse.”
        Except of course that the “reins” were being used not on the horses but the people as well.


        1. Ron Oertel

          It is a sad situation, regardless.

          Seems to me that there (could) be a difference between allowing people into the country for periods of time (or at least helping them), vs. providing a path toward full citizenship.

          Two different issues. Though a country should (also) not strive to create a permanent “underclass” of non-citizens.

          Can’t say that I support confronting them in this manner, at that point.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Wondering, however, if anyone has ever considered building a wall.  Such as the one in the photo accompanying this article.

          Might be a winning strategy, for some presidential candidate.

          Maybe Mexico can help pay for it (since they also have to deal with this).

          Well, it’s probably easier than traveling between North and South Korea, I imagine. Or getting out of Afghanistan. (I wonder if they let people “into” Afghanistan.)

  1. Ron Oertel

    I suspect that the country is “this close” to electing someone like Trump again.

    The views in this article are still in the minority, nationwide.

    Perhaps a poll is needed, to see if Americans support open borders and a path toward citizenship for anyone who wants it.

    Because that’s really what this is about, not what the guys on horseback did.

    How many people have died trying to get into the U.S.?

      1. Ron Oertel

        But whatever their misgivings about the situation at the border, majorities of poll respondents favor creating a legal pathway to citizenship for certain groups of immigrants already living in the country.

        So, they don’t support illegal immigration, but they do support a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

        It is indeed a “complicated” (non-sensical) situation.  Maybe the conflicting views of Americans themselves is the root of the problem.

        The poll also suggests that underlying attitudes about immigrants have shifted.

        For several years, Ipsos has asked respondents whether they agree that “immigrants are an important part of our American identity.” In 2020, more than 71% of all respondents agreed. This year, that percentage has fallen to 62%. Among Republicans, the drop was even steeper: 61% agreed last year, compared with 48% this year.

        There was a significant drop in this weird (almost irrelevant) question, over the course of a year.

        What they ought to do is change the law in which the children of non-citizens become citizens at birth. What kind of perverse incentive does that create?

      2. Ron Oertel

        By the way, what kind of poll question is this?

        Roughly 4 out of 5 Americans, regardless of partisan affiliation, identified the situation at the southern border as a “problem,” though Republicans were more likely than Democrats to call it a “major problem.”

        Is there any meaning to be derived from that whatsoever?

        Perhaps one should consider the source/creator of the poll, as David suggested to me the other day.

        1. Keith Olsen

          Perhaps one should consider the source/creator of the poll, as David suggested to me the other day.

          Yeah, seeing that “NPR” was involved certainly jumped out to me.  Maybe David can critique this poll just like he did the poll that you cited the other day?

        2. David Greenwald

          I don’t see anything that stands out – overall the respondents saw the situation as bad, they support some liberalization of but not general liberalization.  You see something that stands out?

        3. Ron Oertel

          Already noted via this comment:

          Is there any meaning to be derived from that whatsoever?

          And via the following quote in the article itself:

          But whatever their misgivings about the situation at the border,

          What are “misgivings”?

          I haven’t reviewed the rest of the article/survey, since then.

          If I was devising a survey, I’d probably ask questions regarding whether or not force and/or quick deportation is supported. (And perhaps dive deeper into that, with additional questions.)

          I might also ask if the U.S. should work more-closely with Mexico regarding the ongoing situation, and exactly what they should do (perhaps among a range of options).

  2. Don Shor

    Polls have generally shown that a majority of Americans:

    Favors a legal path to citizenship for undocumented people who have been living and working here, and that they should be allowed to remain here legally.

    Supports taking in refugees escaping war and violence.

    Supports increased border security.

    Favors increasing deportation of those who are presently entering the US illegally.

    There are huge and increasing partisan differences on these issues. Republican officeholders in general have become very unwilling to support anything that increases immigration because of the influence of the Tea Party and Trump’s supporters.

    The 2013 immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate 84 – 15, reflected these priorities and had broad public support. But the Republican speaker of the House refused to bring it to the floor for a vote despite a minority of members of his own party being in support of it. It would have passed the House and would have been signed by President Obama.

    As to birthright citizenship:

    The 14th Amendment:  “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

    Flagrantly racist arguments had been made in the past as to whether this applied to, for example, Black slaves, children born to Chinese immigrants, or Native Americans born on reservations. The Supreme Court has upheld their citizenship rights in each case that came before them. There are some very narrow exceptions. Native Americans achieved full citizenship in 1940.

    As to the article proposals, I don’t think that shrinking the budget of the Border Patrol or putting a moratorium on hiring is going to have the intended consequences as that would likely increase the processing backlogs. We keep experiencing surges of refugees from different regions and we don’t have control over the reasons those are happening. People are fleeing Haiti and Central America for a lot of reasons that will not be going away any time soon. So we will likely need more agents for interdiction, more facilities for retention, and especially more processing staff and judges for immigration hearings.

    The other recommendations (use of force standards, expanded training, discipline guidelines, etc.) likely have merit, as there is a long history of documented abuses by border patrol officers.

                “CBP’s rampant abuses are doomed to repeat themselves absent robust reforms.”

    “Robust reforms” would require congressional approval. The fervent minority of Americans that supports Trump will probably primary any Republican officeholder who supports any kind of immigration reform. So bipartisan reform is unlikely and the filibuster prevents any Senate action on this topic. Biden can count votes. So we’re stuck with a situation where executive orders will be put forth by each successive administration, but subject to reversal by the next one. We need immigration reform, but that is probably not going to happen in the present political environment.

    My personal opinion is we need a stable labor force for many industries which have traditionally relied on immigrant labor. This is a huge issue in agriculture right now, as well as the landscape and construction and restaurant and hotel industries. We should be welcoming people who are coming here to work, and it is obvious that they will often wish to bring their families with them. That’s how at least one part of my family got here, and I suspect many others who participate here as well. It’s who we are as a nation.

    Those workers who have been here for a long time working and paying taxes are already part of our economy and culture and should be treated respectfully and allowed to become citizens. Our long history of accepting immigrants fleeing terror and violence in other parts of the world has led to great waves of immigration that have been beneficial to our country.  In many instances (Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Guatemala and Honduras as notable examples over the last few decades) our own foreign policies were or are significant factors as to why those folks are seeking to come here.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Unclear if I failed to hit the “post comment” button, or if I was quickly deleted…

      Ron O has one correct point on “the rules”, as to “abuses”…

      There is a small “cottage industry” that facilitates late term pregnant women (primarily Asian, some Latin American, some African) to enter the US (usually “visitor visas”), give birth (guaranteeing US citizenship for the child), then return back to their countries of origin, with “mission accomplished”…

      Not what I think was intended when the laws were passed.  A form of opportunistic fraud, generally by people of “means”, not refugees, poor, destitute, etc.

      This “cottage industry” is well documented, but a ‘spit in the ocean’ as far as US citizenship.

  3. Alan Miller

    “This is why your country’s shît, because you use your women for this!”

    “I’ve fücking had it with you, this is why you guys don’t advance in your country.”

    These aren’t nice things to say (though I’ve sustained worse from former Vanguard commenters).  What is the “this” they are referring to in both these sentences?  There is no context.

    “disgusting subhuman shît unworthy of being kindling in a fire.”

    OK, I’ll grant you that one as verbal abuse.  I’ll have to keep that one in my satchel for when its warranted.

  4. Keith Olsen

    So Biden and Harris have cancelled the horse patrols even though they have often been used to save migrant’s lives.  Good move, all for political posturing and trying to take the spotlight off of their own failed border policies.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Good move, all for political posturing and trying to take the spotlight off of their own failed border policies.

      What policies?  🙂

      Seems to me that they’re just “winging it”, along with the entire Democratic party. But truth be told, there’s a big difference within that party.

      With Republicans, not so much.

  5. Bill Marshall

    From title of article…

    Addressing Racialized Violence Against…

    Why does that look like “radicalized violence”?

    Why the need for the ‘adjective’?

    Are not the ‘adjectives’/qualifiers pejorative?

    Why is not ‘violence’ sufficient?

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