Report of sexual assault at border heightens concern about immigration agent abuse

“We are human beings and we are also children.”

I n this June 19, 2014 photo, a Central American migrants emerge from side streets to crowd onto the tracks, as a northbound freight train arrives in the station in Arriaga, Chiapas state, Mexico. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
I n this June 19, 2014 photo, a Central American migrants emerge from side streets to crowd onto the tracks, as a northbound freight train arrives in the station in Arriaga, Chiapas state, Mexico. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has lodged two administrative claims against the U.S. government this week on behalf of two sisters from Guatemala who say that a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent sexually assaulted them along the Texas border.

The two sisters had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to find safety in the country when they called out to an U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent for help. That agent brought the two sisters — who were 17 and 19 at the time of the sexual assault — to an office in Presidio, Texas where he individually took them into a “closet-like room” where he told them to take off their clothes and sexually assaulted them, according to the ACLU claims filed Wednesday.

Clarita, the older sister who was sexually assaulted, told reporters that she wanted to share her story because she didn’t want the same thing to happen to anyone else, including women.

“Just because we’re not from here, we ask for respect,” Clarita said on a press call with reporters. “We are human beings and we are also children.”

The two women had come to the United States to reunite with their mother after a 12-year separation. They fled their native country of Guatemala after they felt that the conditions were no longer safe for them to stay in the country. Since the sexual assault took place, the two women have been reunited with their mother in Fresno, California where they now attend weekly counseling sessions.

The ACLU’s federal tort claim is seeking $750,000 in personal injury compensation for each woman.

A CBP representative said that the agency couldn’t comment on pending litigation, but that it took allegations of misconduct seriously and would not tolerate mistreatment of people in their custody.

“We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks, and we fully cooperate with any criminal or administrative investigation of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, on or off duty,” the spokesperson told ThinkProgress.

Yet advocates claim the CBP agency does tolerate abuse. They say this kind of behavior is indicative of major failings within the border agency, which has an extensive history of complaints lodged against its agents.

“This case is unfortunately representative of a pattern within CBP of significant abuse of children, including significant sexual abuse of children by agents near the border,” Mitral Ebadolahi, Border Litigation Project staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, said on a press call.

At the height of a crisis which saw tens of thousands of unaccompanied children cross the southern U.S. border between 2014 and 2016, five major human rights groups filed a joint complaint on behalf of 116 kids alleging abuse by border agents and officials. One in four children represented by the 2014 complaint reported some form of physical abuse, like sexual assault, beatings, and the use of stress positions by agency officials.

Both verbal and physical abuse extends to border-crossers. One in three border-crossers who spoke to the authors of a 2015 study conducted by the immigrant advocacy group Kino Border Initiative (KBI) said that agents subjected them to some type of abuse or confiscated their belongings.

Immigrant advocates are concerned that the Trump administration’s executive order promising to hire thousands of additional immigration agents could lead to more abuse. One of the more problematic issues is that the basic academy training lasts for only 55 days if an agent speaks proficient Spanish, at which point they can report directly to their duty stations to begin post-academy training. In comparison, other people without Spanish-language skills undergo a total of 19 weeks of training.

What’s perhaps most troubling is that a 2013 Center for Investigative Reporting report found that during a hiring surge that began in 2006 — which eventually added 17,000 employees — thousands of would-be agents were hired without polygraph screenings, which became mandatory in 2013. Of the prospective agents who made it to the polygraph exam, which is the one of the last steps of the hiring process, some admitted to crimes like murder, bestiality, rape, and links to organized crimes.

“CBP has a troubling and extensively documented history of human rights abuses at the border. This history, paired with Trump’s anti-immigration policies and his plan to add 5,000 more Border Patrol agents to CBP’s ranks, are great cause for alarm,” Ebadolahi said.