ACLU, Advocates Create Database to Document Border Patrol Abuse

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U.S. Border Patrol agents at a Detroit Bus Station

Since 9/11, Congress has tripled the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents to more than 21,000. In the scramble to find willing recruits, the Department of Homeland Security sometimes defers background checks and relaxes recruitment standards.

With the increase in agents, there’s also been an increase in complaints from citizens who live along our international borders. Especially the northern border where Border Patrol agents now sometimes staff 911 call centers or respond in remote areas to domestic disturbance abuse calls and other cases normally relegated to the police department or sheriff’s office. For instance, last June a 75-year-old man, Charles Robinson, was fatally shot in Jackman, Maine, after he fired on a Border Patrol agent, who responded to a domestic dispute call at Robinson’s residence.

On the southern border, there have also been deaths. A grand jury has been convened to look into the death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas in 2010 by border agents. Hernandez, a citizen of Mexico, was being deported at the San Diego port of entry when he was beaten and tased by over a dozen agents. He died a few days later. Earlier this year, PBS’ “Need to Know” aired cell phone footage taken by an eyewitness of the incident.

I’ve heard repeatedly from civil rights advocates and border citizens that it’s time that border patrol policies and training be re-examined. But it’s an idea that hasn’t caught up with members of Congress yet.

For the past decade, the political debate over whether our borders have enough “boots on the ground” has been white hot, but a much-needed debate over who fills those boots and how they exercise their authority has been sadly lacking.

The ACLU and a network of civil rights advocates along the border have taken it upon themselves to document patterns of abuse and catalogue repeat offenders with the goal of asking for policy changes in the future.

They’re tracking the complaints in a new database called the U.S./Mexico Binational Abuse Documentation System. For the project, the ACLU’s Regional Center for Border Rights in Las Cruces, New Mexico, created the web-based platform so that advocates can document complaints of abuse or misconduct from wherever they are along the border.

“Across the border there’s the sense that the same types of abuse are occurring from the more mundane of not providing food and water to people in detention to excessive use of force,” says Brian Erickson, an ACLU policy analyst who is overseeing the database project. “This is a tool to see whether the abuses are systemic in nature. The biggest goal is to hold Border Patrol accountable and to offer up policies that we want to see changed.”

Groups in California, Arizona and El Paso have already begun using the database. This week, a civil rights coalition called The RGV Equal Voice Network, announced the start of the project in the Rio Grande Valley.

Mike Seifert, spokesperson for the RGV Equal Voice Network, said the coalition is also promoting a hotline in the Valley where people can report abuses to be collected in the database. “We’re looking at everything,” he says. “Tasings, shooting events because of rock throwing and home invasions. We want to make it clear though that we can’t offer legal advice but we can refer cases to the ACLU.”

The secure database will be private and only available to people in the advocacy organizations who have been trained to use it, says Erickson.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.