Shocking instances of sexual and physical abuse of asylum seekers at the southern US border by federal officers have been uncovered by Human Rights Watch, after a years-long battle to wrestle the information from the Department of Homeland Security under freedom of information laws.
A stash of redacted documents released to the human rights group after six years of legal tussles uncover more than 160 cases of misconduct and abuse by leading government agencies, notably Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Border Patrol. The papers record events between 2016 and 2021 that range from child sexual assault to enforced hunger, threats of rape and brutal detention conditions.
Some of the incidents involve alleged criminal activity by federal agents.
Human Rights Watch said that the documents “paint a picture of DHS as an agency that appears to have normalized shocking abuses at the US border. The US should take urgent and sustained action to stop such abuses”.
The newly released documents record a case of alleged child sexual abuse reported by a supervisor in the San Francisco asylum office. An asylum officer interviewed “a young child who was sexually molested by someone we believe to be a CBP or Border Patrol Officer … The young girl was forced to undress and touched inappropriately by a guard wearing green”.
The Border Patrol uniform is green.
Another report recounts an incident in 2018 when a male asylum seeker was detained and taken to a detention center in San Ysidro, California. An officer told the man that “if he gave him sex, he would be set free”, and when the detainee refused “the officer swore at him in English and said that he would be locked up as punishment”.
Federal agents operating along the Mexican border have long been accused of misconduct and mistreatment of the migrants and asylum seekers attempting to enter the US. Conditions in detention centers can be harsh and detainees have frequently complained that they are kept so cold the holding pens are described as “hieleras”, or ice boxes.
A Honduran asylum seeker reported conditions in the McAllen facility in 2019: “I was there for 10 days sitting, I couldn’t move because it was 67 of us in that cell. We said we needed toilet paper and water and … we reported the animals, the scorpions in there. There were scorpions, ants, ticks, fleas and they would tell us that it was fine, it was because of our own stink of being there 45 days.”
Concerns about inappropriate behaviour by officers at the border made international headlines again in September when Border Patrol agents on horseback bearing what looked like whips were photographed grabbing at Haitian migrants.
The Human Rights Watch documents point to numerous ways in which asylum seekers appear to have had their right to due process violated. One of the records released in the freedom of information suit appears to relate to a federal inquiry into CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) violations of correct procedure.
The inquiry found 27 possible cases where asylum seekers were blocked from filing complaints or forced to sign papers they could not understand.
One Honduran man applying for asylum was told by a Border Patrol agent that unless he signed paperwork rescinding his application “he was going to be sent to a jail where they were going to rape him”.