Something is wrong with the institutional culture at the U.S. government’s border and migration enforcement agencies. It’s a problem that predates Donald Trump, though it has worsened since 2016. Remedying this cultural toxicity must be a priority for the next presidential administration. Regardless of who wins in November 2020, the task will be difficult, requiring reserves of political will that may be in short supply.
WOLA’s decades of work in Latin America have made us all too familiar with some notorious security-force units. El Salvador’s Atlacatl Battalion, Guatemala’s Kaibiles, Colombia’s 4th Brigade, or Venezuela’s FAES, among many others, committed massacres, rapes, tortures, paramilitarism, extrajudicial executions, and even genocide.
Though their contexts were different, these units shared some common traits. They focused on an internal enemy. They shared an ideological agenda with a ruling party or junta. They committed daily petty abuses in addition to their more spectacular crimes. They dehumanized both their victims and their own members. They operated with a solid guarantee of impunity for their actions.
WOLA has managed a security and migration program at the U.S.-Mexico border since 2011. This work has made us ever more worried about the trajectory of the United States’ own border forces: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its Border Patrol component. Within the U.S. interior, we are similarly concerned about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), though this commentary will focus mainly on the border.
We need to speak up more about this trajectory because much of what we’re seeing in the U.S. border and migration forces reminds us of what we’ve seen in notorious units elsewhere. The politicization, resistance to oversight, and tolerance of abuse in U.S. border agencies’ institutional culture must end.
CBP, Border Patrol, and ICE haven’t sunk to the level of the Latin American units: nothing on U.S. soil yet rivals El Salvador’s El Mozote massacre, Colombia’s “false positives” scandal, or the dirty wars of the 1970s. Nonetheless, these agencies are exhibiting some of the same “internal enemy” focus, politicization, wanton cruelty, dehumanization, assumption of impunity, and resistance to oversight that we’ve seen, with tragic results, in our work elsewhere in Latin America.
Border Patrol, in particular, has followed an institutional development path custom-made for a bad outcome. Those who joined the Patrol in the first years after its 1924 founding included active Ku Klux Klan members. For its first several decades, the force remained small and neglected, operating out of the public eye and developing a reputation for a “cowboy” mentality marked by frequent abuses. It passed through the Departments of Labor, Justice, and Interior before becoming part of CBP within the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003.
Border Patrol multiplied in size during the post-September 11 period, incorporating new recruits so fast that “no trainee left behind” was a common joke at the Academy. Today, there are about 20,000 agents, while CBP overall (over 60,000 employees) is the largest law enforcement agency in the federal government. This fast hiring created managerial problems that got exacerbated by a lack of Senate-confirmed CBP commissioners, a weak internal affairs capacity, and a defiant employees’ union that resists reform.
Most readers are aware of the results. Border Patrol and CBP personnel have been involved in lethal use-of-force incidents, including fatal shootings across the border into Mexico. Agents willingly separated thousands of children from parents without keeping records of family relationships. During peak migration periods, they kept kids crowded in Border Patrol stations under unclean, unsafe conditions that, once they were revealed, horrified much of the nation. Under the “Remain in Mexico” initiative, they enthusiastically sent tens of thousands of asylum-seeking families to await their hearings while homeless and vulnerable in high-crime Mexican border cities; hundreds were kidnapped or assaulted while their management hailed the effort as a “game-changer.” Nothing about the agency’s culture disincentivized this behavior: often, it was rewarded.
While past abuses like “family separation” and “kids in cages” shocked much of the nation, evidence of a perverse institutional culture persists in the 2020 calendar year.
Beyond all of this are the everyday allegations of racial profiling, roughing up (called “tuning up”) of apprehended migrants, abusive language, maintenance of hieleras and other deliberately uncomfortable custody conditions, and a view that people exercising their legal right to seek asylum are, in President Trump’s words, “scammers” gaming the system.
WOLA does not believe that all Border Patrol agents and CBP officers are monsters. We have spoken to dozens over the years. The majority are dedicated public servants. Many are caring parents and leaders in their communities. We are more concerned with what is being done to them by an institutional culture whose trajectory is pointing in the direction of some of the more abusive security-force units we’ve seen in Latin America.
We don’t know how a typical agent feels, or internalizes the stress, when expelling a family pleading not to be returned to danger, or when leaving a scared child to the custody of contractors who showed themselves to be aggressive and profane in a Texas attorney’s video. We don’t know what it does to someone who decides to remain silent after seeing a co-worker bully or rough up a defenseless person in custody. The experience must be traumatic, at least at first. But as former Border Patrol agent Francisco Cantú told us in August, the institution’s culture “can reshape and reframe consciousness.” When messaging from political leaders and the institution’s own history reinforce the view of cruelty as a deterrent, the accumulated effect is dehumanizing.
Over the next year, WOLA is looking more deeply at ways the United States can change the culture of its border security agencies before things get worse. Interviews, discussions, and documentary research are ongoing, and our recommendations will grow more specific. For now, though, these principles appear certain to us.
Persistent impunity and non-functioning mechanisms for complaint and redress are creating perverse incentives. A decreased probability of punishment for abusive behavior increases abusive behavior.
While most agents are decent people, they rarely speak up when one of their own acts abusively or indecently. Groups like the American Immigration Council, the ACLU Border Rights Center and the Border Network for Human Rights have documented the extreme difficulty of securing punishment or redress for abusive behavior. The challenges are acute:
Border Patrol suffers from many of the same accountability problems as, say, the Minneapolis Police Department, former agent Francisco Cantú pointed out. But people aren’t standing around with cellphone cameras in the middle of the desert to document what is happening. Worsening impunity portends a worsening of CBP’s and Border Patrol’s institutional cultures.
U.S. border agencies are being dangerously politicized, a phenomenon we’ve seen too often in Latin America’s security forces.
A union (the National Border Patrol Council or NBPC) that claims to represent 90 percent of the force endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries, and today its Twitter feed frequently parrots or re-tweets Trump campaign materials. The union has aligned itself with an immigration policy agenda that is far more hardline than overall U.S. public opinion, and some of its messaging, including in its podcast, has been virulently opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement. The NBPC chafed under the modest reforms proposed during the Obama administration, like use of force standards and anti-corruption measures. We can expect the force’s politicization to bring an ugly cultural clash if Joe Biden wins the presidency in November.
Politicization has come with a public-facing posture of grievance. Much NBPC messaging, as well as CBP leadership’s statements at congressional hearings, on Fox News, and elsewhere, is angry, defensive, and aggrieved, even at a time when the administration in power is lavishing resources and praise on the agency. James Tomsheck told the New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer that the attitude at CBP regarding oversight was “us against the world.” Robert Bonner, who became the first head of CBP in 2003, told Politico that “defensiveness and insularity within the Border Patrol” goes back to its “inferiority complex” when the Patrol was a subordinate agency of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service. This is not a sign of an agency with a healthy organizational culture.
Additionally, agents are being compelled to fulfill roles for which they are not trained. The main mission of Border Patrol is to defend U.S. borders against threats like terrorism and organized crime, while curtailing unauthorized migration. Until the mid-2010s, “unauthorized migration” mainly meant single adults seeking to avoid apprehension.
By 2019, though, two out of three migrants were children or parents, most of them seeking to be apprehended and processed to seek asylum. Agents were dedicating much or most of their time to processing paperwork, caring for children and families in custody, and interacting with people who were victims of trauma. These are not tasks that the Border Patrol Academy prepared them for, nor are they tasks that require an armed, uniformed law enforcement officer’s time and skills. They are certainly not tasks for a civilian law enforcement agency that often, incorrectly, refers to itself as a “paramilitary” organization. The profile of a typical migrant has changed drastically, and neither the agency nor its top management have adjusted.
CBP needs consistent, authorized leadership. Since 2009, it has been led by a Senate-confirmed commissioner for only a bit more than five years, and it does not have one today. That is toxic for an agency that is less than 20 years old and has undergone rapid growth. It is even more toxic at a time of drastically changed demands and creeping politicization. Acting officials cannot institute reforms or compel needed changes. They end up presiding over bureaucratic inertia and dangerous cultural drift.
Taking strong steps to fix the culture at CBP and Border Patrol (as well as at ICE) is necessary not only for border communities and those who fall victim to these agencies’ many excesses. It’s necessary for the well-being of the agents and officers themselves: the majority who want to do their job from an ethic of service. Identifying and promoting ways to do that will be a principal focus of WOLA’s border work over the next year.
Many suggest abolishing or de-funding these agencies. That option should not be ruled out, if their organizational cultural problems are too deeply embedded. However, abolishing CBP or Border Patrol won’t abolish most of the functions that they perform. Some of those functions, like processing and caring for asylum seekers and their children, clearly should be performed by other personnel. But the United States (or any country) will still need a force at its borders that is vigilant against security threats, that can detect and interdict unauthorized crossings, and that can register and inspect all authorized crossings. Some of that work will always be dangerous, and there will always be a law enforcement agency on the border carrying it out. But much of this work can be done quite differently than the disturbing examples above show it being done today.
WOLA looks forward to discussing how to go about this in our work over the next year. From our work documenting abusive units elsewhere in Latin America, though, we are certain of several principles. It will require ending these agencies’ orientation toward an internal enemy. It will mean de-politicization and decoupling from an ideological agenda. It will mean far greater accountability for abuses both spectacular and petty. It will mean a re-humanization of personnel and the populations they interact with. It will mean, in short, an organizational culture dramatically different than the one that prevails today.