International Human Rights Clinic, ACLU Report Reveals Frequent Abuse of Migrant Children by US Customs and Border Protection

Becky GIllespie
May 23, 2018

A report released today by the University of Chicago Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Border Litigation Project reveals evidence of rampant child abuse by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials, offering the public an unprecedented look at conditions experienced by unaccompanied migrant children who are apprehended upon arrival at the southern border of the United States.

The report, available on a new website launched by the ACLU, includes complaints in which children describe being kicked, shot with Tasers, sexually assaulted, deprived of food and water, held in freezing and unsanitary detention centers, threatened with rape and death, verbally abused, and more. It also offers evidence that children’s complaints of abuse were often ignored or mishandled by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

“These children are among the most vulnerable in the world: they are alone, having escaped violence and poverty in their home countries. When they arrive at our border, however, they often face shocking levels of neglect and abuse at the hands of US officials—officials who are bound by law to keep these children safe and treat them in a humane way,” said IHRC Director Claudia Flores, who led a group of three Law School students in reviewing the complaints; researching human rights, immigration, and child protection laws; and drafting the report in collaboration with the ACLU. “These complaints—which offer details never before available to the public on this scale—show institutional impunity by Customs and Border Protection officials and a disturbing lack of accountability.”

Added Mitra Ebadolahi, ACLU Border Litigation Project staff attorney: “These documents provide a glimpse into a federal immigration enforcement system marked by brutality and lawlessness. All human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their immigration status—and children, in particular, deserve special protection. The misconduct demonstrated in these records is breathtaking, as is the government’s complete failure to hold officials who abuse their power accountable. The abuse that takes place by government officials is reprehensible and un-American.”

The report is part of a wider project by the ACLU’s Border Litigation Project—a joint project of the ACLU Foundations of Arizona and San Diego & Imperial Counties. Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed in late 2014, and over three years of subsequent litigation co-counseled with the law firm of Cooley LLP, the ACLU obtained more than 30,000 pages of documents from various DHS agencies. The documents—all of which are now being published by the ACLU—cover incidents that took place between 2009 and 2014 involving unaccompanied children, most of whom were fleeing violence and poverty in Mexico and Central America. 

By law, CBP officials are not to hold unaccompanied children who are apprehended at the border for longer than 72 hours. These children are entitled to safe, secure, and clean facilities; adequate food and water; proper medical care; and respectful treatment. Federal officials are also bound by law to report any incidents of child abuse to law enforcement, child protective services, or the FBI.

But what the students and lawyers found as they reviewed complaints made to the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) was a systemic pattern of abuse: children being stomped on or punched; fondled or made to strip naked; verbally abused (being called “dog,” “piece of crap,” or “prostitute,” or being told they will “contaminate this country”); fed inedible or spoiled food; or denied necessary medical care.  

These records also show that neither of two DHS oversight entities—CRCL and the Office of the Inspector General—fully or effectively investigated children’s complaints. Investigations were repeatedly closed due to agency delays and a lack of reliable record keeping. The records offered no evidence of effective remedial or disciplinary measures taken by DHS.

"The ACLU Border Litigation Project has recovered these disturbing records, which reflect abuses that occurred during the Obama administration. The concern is that, as Trump has increased federal immigration enforcement at our borders and called for increased funding for DHS entities, such abuses could recur—or proliferate,” said Grace Paek, ’18, who worked on the project with Nabihah Maqbool, ’18, and Chinwe Chukwuogo, ’18.

Added Chukwuogo: "This clinic project was a serious eye-opener for us when it comes to holding government accountable. No matter where they come from, children must be protected and have their basic needs met. These children were alone and had no one to advocate for them."

The report is available at https://www.aclusandiego.org/civil-rights-civil-liberties/