Phoenix, Arizona - The number of apprehensions of undocumented immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped, but reports of abuses against immigrants are on the rise.
Those are the findings of a new report released by the Arizona humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths.
The report, “A Culture of Cruelty,” documents 30,000 incidents of human rights abuses against undocumented immigrants in short-term detention between fall 2008 and spring 2011. Nearly 13,000 people were interviewed in the Mexican border towns of Naco, Nogales and Agua Prieta.
Allegations range from Border Patrol agents denying food and water to adults and children in detention for several days, to purposely separating families during deportation or forcing people to sign removal orders.
They also include concerns that detainees were not provided the right to due process.
“We didn’t go out looking for these stories. They came to us and they were inescapable,” said Hannah Hafter, a co-author of the report who works as a volunteer for No More Deaths helping deported immigrants.
“Many of the grassroots services we provide wouldn’t need to exist if the Border Patrol was doing the right thing,” she said.
The report contends that the alleged physical and verbal abuse suffered by immigrants fits the international definition of torture.
According to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, physiological abuse can be defined as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering […] upon another person within his custody or physical control.”
Allegations of torture include threatening detainees with death while in custody, and verbal and physical abuse.
“That is a pretty serious allegation, and any allegation we are going to take very seriously and we’re going to look into it,” said Colleen Agle, a spokesperson from the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol.
Agle said the Border Patrol couldn’t provide statistics on the number of complaints referred to the agency. But she said they would seriously consider the findings in this report and investigate if there are credible allegations.
“This has nothing to do with how you or I feel about immigration policies,” said Reverend Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which represents over 1,000 congregations with Jewish-Christian roots. “The majority of Americans don’t want to see this kind of treatment of innocent people, women and children, in their name,” said Morales, who has been involved in acts of civil disobedience in Phoenix against the anti-immigration law SB 1070.
Hafter said that part of the problem is a culture of abuse within the agency.
“Above all, Border Patrol’s steadfast denial of abuse in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is indicative of an institution vehemently resistant to any measure of accountability,” the report claims.
But an even more significant issue for Hafter is the lack of an adequate process for immigrants in detention to file complaints without fearing retaliation or being held for long periods of time.
Agle said that normally immigrants in detention can either report a complaint with Border Patrol itself or request to see a consular official from their country. She said whether or not they stay longer in detention would depend on the individual case.
The Inspector General ultimately handles complaints against the Border Patrol, she said.
Activists, meanwhile, have been filing complaints with the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, a branch within the Department of Homeland Security. They’ve filed 75 complaints so far but say they have received no answer on whether or not action was taken.
Danielle Alvarado, one of the co-authors of the report, says part of the problem is that there is no uniformity in the way complaints are handled.
“A lot of times when they get complains they refer it back to the agency they’re investigating,” said Alvarado. “The only way we have of knowing if the complaint process is working is talking to people afterwards to see if trends are changing.”
Agle said that due to privacy concerns she wasn’t able to reveal how many complaints the Border Patrol has investigated or the outcome of those cases.
Some of the complaints in the report allege violations of international agreements between Mexico and the United States, for example, the agreements that families should be kept together during the removal process and that vulnerable populations like women with children should be deported during daylight hours.
Activists have criticized some Border Patrol policies for putting immigrants in harm’s way. One example is the practice of “lateral removal.”
According to the Border Patrol, this is part of a “consequence delivery system” whose goal is to deter immigrants from re-entering into the country illegally.
Through “lateral removal,” immigrants get deported to areas that are far away from where they first tried to enter illegally.
“The smugglers are preying on them so we want to get them out of their hands, so they don’t continue to be put into a dangerous situation,” explained Border Patrol spokesperson Agle.
But this can result in deporting immigrants to dangerous cities they are unfamiliar with where they could be exposed to kidnappings or violence, according to Hafter, co-author of the report.
No More Deaths has documented a change in the demographics of those who are being deported from the country. A survey of 100 people found that the majority of the immigrants being deported have been living in the United States for an average of 14 years. Many have more than two children in the United States.
Almost 70 percent of those interviewed said they would continue to try to cross the border to reunite with their loved ones.
“No amount of personal risk or inhumane treatment will ever be an effective deterrent,” the report concludes.
Among the report’s recommendations is the creation of an independent commission that would investigate alleged Border Patrol abuses to improve transparency and accountability of the agency.