José Miguel’s story is one of thousands that No More Deaths volunteers collected for the report “A Culture of Cruelty.” This report demonstrates that the Border Patrol systematically abuses people in short-term custody and that existing policies and standards inadequately address a culture of impunity within the agency.
Rather than these abuses being the work of a few rogue agents, the Border Patrol has become a rogue agency. The report draws on interviews with almost 13,000 deportees conducted over 2.5 years. Deportees consistently report the same abuses. Some shared José Miguel’s experiences of physical injury, verbal abuse, and the withholding of food, water and medical care. Many others reported being separated from their families, being endangered in the desert by Border Patrol’s aggressive “dusting” tactic, not having credentials and money returned to them, being repatriated at night in a dangerous city, and being housed in unsanitary, overcrowded holding pens. Increasingly, deportees report psychological abuses that meet the definition of torture under international law.
Existing policies under the Department of Homeland Security for the treatment of individuals in custody and an international agreement between the United States and México concerning the treatment of Mexican deportees forbid these abuses. Despite this fact, inadequate procedures exist within the Border Patrol for identifying and correcting systematic abuse.
The abuses continue as part of United States border policy. The border wall forces migrants into perilous deserts and mountains. Since 2008, the number of migrants crossing the border has fallen precipitously. But, the number of people dying in the desert has remained constant. The systematic abuses of human rights and the culture of cruelty in the Border Patrol directly reflect a border policy designed to maximize the risks to migrants’ health and lives.
Border Patrol abuses reach far beyond the border and affect all Americans, not just undocumented migrants. These abuses fly in the face of the United State’s long-term commitment to justice, accountability and the rule of law. The time has come to institute a structure of independent oversight that will enforce binding standards for the treatment of detainees. We also need to hold the Border Patrol and its contractors accountable when abuses occur. More broadly, the United States needs a humane border policy that respects families and human rights. That is a policy that does not leave daughters wondering where their father is buried.
Randall McGuire, a distinguished professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, Binghamton, N.Y., has conducted research along the U.S. – Mexican border for over 30 years. He is currently a resident scholar in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.