WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Photo: Kino Border Initiative; Illustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

2 Aug 2023 |

Conclusion: Abuses at the U.S.- Mexico Border: How To Address Failures and Protect Rights


WOLA and the Kino Border Initiative have documented many examples of abusive or improper conduct committed by U.S. border authorities. We have also identified glaring flaws in the accountability process at the Department of Homeland Security.

We presented this extensive report in several sections. This is its conclusion, which issues a call to action.

Section I had covered the scope of the abuse problem and the need for accountability. Section II explained how the accountability system is meant to work. Section III looked at why the system so often fails to achieve accountability. Section IV issued recommendations for complaints, investigations, discipline, oversight, and organizational culture.



This agenda of recommended reforms is ambitious. Moderates in Washington, ever cautious about being misconstrued as “anti-law enforcement” as another major election approaches, might argue that it is too ambitious. Those who would remake the United States’ entire border and migration apparatus from the ground up might argue that it is not ambitious enough.

To all sides, including some of CBP and Border Patrol’s most fervent partisans, WOLA and KBI wish to leave a message on which all of us should be able to agree: that the examples of abuse and unprofessional behavior documented in this report are unacceptable. They are unacceptable in their frequency, and in the severity of their cruelty. They are, above all, unacceptable in the difficulty with which perpetrators are held accountable and victims are dignified—whether investigations take the first pathway of alerts from within, or the second pathway of outside complaints.

If there is broad consensus that the current state of human rights at the border is unacceptable, then addressing it requires starting somewhere. 

We all have roles to play.

    • Congress can ask more questions and devote more resources to give investigators the tools they need.
    • Journalists and their editors can increase their scrutiny.
    • DHS management can, within existing authorities, change incentive structures that now favor impunity.
    • Outside advocates can document new examples and patterns of abuse, and demand accountability while proposing reforms.
    • Service providers on both sides of the border can more systematically capture reports of abuse that they receive from the people in their care, and channel those reports to trusted partners who can assist with complaints.
    • Philanthropists can prioritize funding to increase the (currently very small) number of service providers and advocates who have the bandwidth necessary to document abuse, shepherd cases through the byzantine complaints process, and demand reform.
    • The Mexican government’s consulates, as well as those of other countries whose citizens frequently migrate through the U.S.-Mexico border region, can document abuse more thoroughly and demand better treatment of their citizens and others deported into Mexican territory. Mexico’s prosecutors and investigators can act far more assiduously to punish state agents who mistreat migrants on Mexican soil.

Much of the work to reform this unacceptable situation, however, is up to CBP officers and Border Patrol agents themselves, and the people who manage them. The second pathway toward accountability, requiring outside actors to initiate complaints, should not be the main way that we find out about, and achieve justice for, human rights violations. Much more has to come from within.

When an agent witnesses behavior that is cruel, unprofessional, or illegal, that agent should be incentivized—by policy, by management, by culture, and by the probability of an effective, well-resourced response—to report it. Pending a quick and thorough review of the facts, the institution should uphold and reward that officer or agent for doing so. Doing the right thing in the face of a colleague’s wrongdoing is always an act of courage. But it should require far less courage than it appears to require now.

Our organizations fervently believe that this sort of change is possible. In fact, we believe that it shouldn’t even be controversial.


This report was made possible, and tremendously improved, by editing, design, research, communications, and content contributions from Kathy Gille, Joanna Williams, Ana Lucía Verduzco, Zaida Márquez, Sergio Ortiz Borbolla, Milli Legrain, and Felipe Puerta Cuartas. We could not do this work without the generosity of our supporters; please become one of them.