It was with dreams of Fresno and a mother they hadn’t seen in years that two teenage sisters set out from their gang-ravaged home in Guatemala last summer, illegally crossed the border into Mexico and eventually into Texas.
Lost in the desert, they flagged down two Border Patrol agents for help.
Instead, they ended up getting groped in the pantry of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection intake facility by an officer who gave them food so they’d stop crying, according to a pair of claims filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
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“(He) told me he had to search me for his own safety. I took off my sweater, then my shirt,” the older sister told The Fresno Bee, insisting on anonymity because she’s worried about government retaliation. “I kept asking him why. Then I took off my tank top. He asked me to take off my bra, but I didn’t want to, so I loosened it so he could see inside.”
The details only get more horrific from there.
Unfortunately, stories about misconduct by Customs and Border Protection employees – of the sexual and violent variety – are nothing new. Neither are stories about corruption involving Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, whose union endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign.
But with the Trump administration vowing to hire a “deportation force,” possibly lowering hiring standards and scaling back or rushing training to get 15,000 additional agents into the field quickly, these stories have suddenly taken on a new level of urgency.
If ever there was an area of federal law enforcement that needed extreme vetting, it’s this one.
For years, civil liberties groups have criticized Customs and Border Protection, in particular, for its resistance to transparency. Despite some serious improvements in recent years, advocates maintain there’s still not enough information out there about who gets searched and detained by Border Patrol, why property gets seized, and how often excessive force is used.
Just last week, the federal government agreed to pay $1 million to settle a lawsuit out of San Diego over the death of a Mexican teenager, who was told by two Border Patrol agents to sip liquid from two bottles he claimed contained apple juice. In fact, they contained liquid meth and the boy died.
In Arizona, it recently came to light that Border Patrol agents either lost or destroyed a video showing the 2012 killing of a Mexican teenager by an agent who fired across the border fence. The agent has been charged with second-degree murder.
The federal government must not cut corners on new agents – not when fear is palpable in immigrant communities, and there’s a surge of women and children illegally crossing the border.
There have been conflicting reports about whether the U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to stop requiring all Border Patrol applicants to take lie-detector tests. Leaked memos say yes. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who oversees Border Patrol and ICE, has said standards will stay rigorous.
Two out of three job candidates fail the exam, according to The Associated Press, and the results tend to weed people with criminal backgrounds and some would-be double agents for drug cartels.
Meanwhile, in its most recent report to Congress, Homeland Security insisted the number Customs and Border Protection employees accused of sexual assault is small. The goal should be keep it that way.
The sisters in Fresno, meanwhile, are waiting for answers. They want to know the name of their alleged attacker and whether he was disciplined. Homeland Security has six months to respond. If it doesn’t, the ACLU will likely file a lawsuit.
It’s tragic and costly situation that the Trump administration should do everything it can to avoid repeating.