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Thousands of Children Have Suffered Abuse at the Hands of U.S. Border Protection Agents

A new report shows widespread abuse of minors while they were in custody of Customs and Border Protection.
An immigrant woman takes her daughter to school before going to work on February 9th, 2018, in Miami, Florida.

An immigrant woman takes her daughter to school.

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego released a report summarizing the abuse that children suffered from United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents from 2009 to 2014.

"All human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their immigration status—and children, in particular, deserve special protection," Mitra Ebadolahi, ACLU Border Litigation Project staff attorney, said in a press release. "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 U.S. already has some of the harshest immigration laws in the world. If CBP agents simply adhered to those rules, immigrants might have the chance to be treated with a basic sense of human dignity in the immigration process. However, such treatment has proved to be regularly absent from CBP agents' behavior.

Instead, over 30,000 pages of CBP documents clearly show the human rights abuses that migrant children—some of the most vulnerable humans in the world—suffered at the hands of adults who at times seemed to embody the behavior shown in the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment.

Based on the documents, among other examples, the report alleges that CBP officials ran over a 17-year-old with a patrol vehicle and then punched him several times; denied a pregnant minor medical attention when she reported pain, which preceded a stillbirth; subjected a 16-year-old girl to a search in which they "forcefully spread her legs and touched her private parts so hard that she screamed;" and threw out a child's birth certificate and threatened him with sexual abuse by an adult male detainee.

Claudia Flores, faculty director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, led a team of law students in examining a subset of the records. She said students were shocked by the extensive abuse children underwent at the hands of U.S. officials.

"The fact that these children were already so vulnerable—most traveling alone in hopes of escaping violence and poverty in their home countries—made the unlawful and inhumane actions reflected in the documents even more distressing," Flores told the ACLU.

The Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties' (CRCL) documents record multiple instances in which CBP officials subjected migrant children to threats or otherwise stressful situations in an attempt to coerce these children into "self-deportation."

CPB has a strict "zero-tolerance" policy regarding sexual assault, but CRCL documents provide many examples of horrific sexual abuse of minors while in custody of CBP. One child reported abuse by two officers, one male and one female:

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Other minors reported incidents in which medication was withheld from them. One child, detained after undergoing spinal surgery following a car accident, said that CBP agents withheld his prescription medications while he was in custody. Agents also threatened to ignore his doctor's orders that he rest for two weeks because they wanted to deport him sooner.

In addition to recounting the thousands of cases of abuse by border protection agents, the ACLU's report provides disturbing context for the controversial nature of the Trump administration's new move to separate children from their families at the border. Most abuses to minors occurred when they were in cells separated from parents or guardians, or when the minors were apprehended alone.

"It’s terrifying to think that the horrible abuses described in these documents can continue and perhaps worsen under the Trump administration," Astrid Dominguez, director of the ACLU Border Rights Center, said in a press release. "It’s unacceptable that there are no mechanisms in place to shed light on CBP's abuses and ensure accountability."