Over the past few years, as comprehensive immigration reform has stalled, politicians have continued to put more boots on the ground at the border as part of a broader effort to solve the nation’s immigration problems via an enforcement-only approach. However, as the ranks of border patrol agents has ballooned, there has also been a troubling increase in reports of abuse and excessive force aimed at those who end up in their hands. The Los Angeles Times reports that “the Border Patrol is grappling with a spate of misconduct cases in its ranks, which have expanded from 4,000 agents in the early 1990s to 21,000 today.”
Over the last 18 months, five Border Patrol agents have been accused or convicted of sex crimes. One of those agents pleaded guilty earlier this year to raping a woman while off duty, and another is accused of sexually assaulting a migrant while her young children were nearby in a car. Border patrol agent Gamalier Reyes Rivera is jailed and awaiting trial on attempted murder charges in a hatchet attack that paralyzed a man. Agent Jesus Enrique Diaz Jr. is accused of torturing a 16-year-old drug smuggler. A couple months ago, Wonk Room also reported that an unarmed 15-year-old Mexican was shot and killed by a border patrol agent who had rocks thrown at him, though a poor-quality cellphone video suggested the boy was on the Mexican side of the border and pretty defenseless when he was shot. At the time, I also mentioned that a father of five U.S. born children recently died after being shot with a stun gun by a Customs and Border Protection officer at the San Ysidro border crossing as he resisted being deported.
Even the Customs and Border Protection claims it is “fully aware of and deeply concerned about arrests of our employees.” However, the Border Patrol does not publish information about how often or under what circumstances it uses force. Civil rights cases brought against border patrol officers “are extremely difficult, prosecutors say, because agents are loath to report peers and juries are reluctant to convict those standing guard along the country’s borders.”
This sort of misconduct is probably not the norm amongst the thousands of border patrol agents who honorably risk their lives to defend our borders. However, its repeated occurrence makes it hard to argue that these are simply “accidents” or isolated incidents. Many experts have identified the problem as being one of insufficient training. Tony Payan of the University of Texas at El Paso, told the Los Angeles Times, “[t]hey [border patrol] see themselves as a quasi-military body defending the country. Add to that the fact that they are expanding rapidly, and you have thousands of rookies who have very little experience.” Scholars, advocates, and watchdog groups have been echoing Payan’s concerns as far back as 2006. “This is not something where you can snap your fingers and have thousands go on the job,” said Deborah W. Meyers of the Migration Policy Institute. “It is a demanding job, and training is important and intense.”
There has also been one other disturbing trend within the Customs and Border Protection agency: a rise in suicides. Given that few of the officers left behind suicide notes, it’s impossible to say that what is causing some officers to kill themselves is related to what is driving the misconduct of others. However, the Associated Press suggested one explanation: boredom. Reporter Paul J. Weber claims that “stepped-up border security — including 600 miles of fence and an even larger ‘virtual’ fence that is monitored online — has reduced the number of illegal crossings, as has the economic hardship of the recession.” According to Weber, “the result is a job that went from thrilling to downright boring.” Though whether they’re bored or not, few would argue that that the political debate debate has made their job any less stressful.