Organizational Culture Events

Examples of abuses or other behaviors indicating need for reform at U.S. border and migration institutions

February 18, 2020

An ACLU complaint to the DHS Inspector-General cites the recent case of “Baby Sofía,” a six-week-old infant whose Honduran parents were apprehended in Border Patrol’s San Diego sector.

“The agent who transported the family to a nearby Border Patrol station subjected them to a reckless ‘rough ride,’ causing Sofia to be jostled severely in her carrier as the Border Patrol vehicle traversed uneven terrain.[37] At the station, the agent who fingerprinted the family yelled at Gloria [the mother] and told her she was a terrible mother for bringing her baby to the United States.[38]”

While the family was in custody, Sofía became ill. Agents brought the mother and daughter to a nearby emergency room, leaving the father in custody.

“At the emergency room, a doctor determined that Sofia was dehydrated and constipated. The doctor explained that there was little he could do for the baby, and insisted that the baby see a pediatrician as soon as possible. Instead—and in direct contravention of this medical advice—the Border Patrol returned Gloria and Sofia to detention.”

Through a second day in custody, the baby’s condition worsened. Mother and daughter were taken to a nearby children’s hospital.

“The examining physician again concluded that the infant was dehydrated and constipated, and administered a rectal suppository to help move the baby’s bowels. The doctor also scolded the Border Patrol agents who had accompanied Gloria and Sofia to the hospital, admonishing them that the conditions inside the facility (as Gloria had described them) ‘[were] no conditions for a newborn.'” Agents failed to follow doctors’ recommendation that the baby be given prune or fruit juice to soften her bowels.

Following two more days in custody and another visit to the emergency room, Border Patrol released the family to the San Diego migrant respite center. Sofía’s mother said that, since a final check-up in Tijuana, the baby’s weight had dropped in custody from 11.46 points to 8.82 pounds.

— ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, ACLU Border Rights Center, “U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol’s Abuse and Mistreatment of Detained Sick Children,” Letter to DHS Inspector-General Joseph V. Cuffari, February 18, 2020 <https://cbpabusestest2.files.wordpress.com/2020/10/2020-02-18-dhs-oig-cmplt-2-final.pdf>.

Footnotes from above:

[37] A “rough ride” is a euphemism for the practice of intentionally operating a vehicle in a manner that causes passengers physical harm, fear, or other discomfort. See, e.g., A.C. Thompson, “Dirtbag,” “Savages,” “Subhuman”: A Border Patrol Agent’s Hateful Career and the Crime That Finally Ended It, PROPUBLICA, Aug. 16, 2019, https://www.propublica.org/article/border-agents-hateful-career-and-the-crime-that-finally-ended-it; Ieva Jusionyte, Pain on the Border: Fieldnotes from a Migrant Aid Center in Nogales, Mexico, REVISTA: HARVARD REVIEW OF LATIN AMERICA (“Displacements” Issue) (Winter 2017), https://revista.drclas.harvard.edu/book/pain-border.

Infants are uniquely vulnerable to head and spine injuries, especially traumatic brain injuries, even when in appropriate car seats during motor vehicle accidents. See, e.g., Camille L. Stewart et. al., Infant Car Seat Safety and Risk of Head Injury, 49 J. PEDIATRIC SURGERY 193, 195 (2014), https://www.jpedsurg.org/article/S0022-3468(13)00773-2/pdf.

[38] ACLU has additional identifying details about this agent, which it can share with OIG upon request.

Sector(s): San Diego

Agency(ies): Border Patrol

Event Type(s): Conditions in Custody, Denial of Medical Care, Rough Rides

Accountability Status: Complaint filed with CRCL, Shared with DHS OIG

February 16, 2020

A Guatemalan woman and her family say that, while being processed in the Chula Vista Border Patrol station near San Diego, she was left to give birth “while standing up, holding on to the side of a trash can,” BuzzFeed reports. The woman, pregnant and experiencing contractions, had repeatedly asked the agents for help. “She was repeatedly told to sit down and wait to be processed, she said. …After about 30 minutes, her husband could hear the baby crying through the fabric of her pants.”

The family—father, mother, and two small children—had been sent to Tijuana in May 2019 under the Remain in Mexico program, where they had “spent nine months in a camp” and reported to the port of entry to attend three separate immigration hearings. Their next hearing was scheduled for May 2020; in February the family reported that their Guatemalan persecutors had found them in Tijuana and were threatening them, leading them to cross the border outside the port of entry.

While crossing the desert, the woman went into contractions. “They were soon apprehended by a Border Patrol agent,” BuzzFeed reports.

“The woman was in clear distress, and her husband begged the agent for medical attention, the complaint says, but instead the agent loaded the family into his car and giving them a ‘rough ride’ (an abusive practice in which some border agents reportedly purposefully drive badly so as to fling detainees around the car), the complaint says, and brought them to the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station for processing.”

“The apprehending agent could visibly see that the woman was pregnant; however, the mother did not appear to be in distress and did not request any medical attention,” reads a release from CBP (original link). In April 2020, the ACLU and Jewish Family Service submitted a complaint to the DHS Inspector-General (original link). Thirteen Democratic senators signed a letter to the Inspector-General calling for investigations of this and other recent allegations of mistreatment in custody (original link).

Border Patrol San Diego Sector Chief Aaron Heitke tweeted, “CBP strongly disagrees with the unsubstantiated allegations against our agents & supports what appear to be nothing short of heroic actions by those on scene” (original link).

A July 2021 DHS Inspector General report finds that the woman gave birth 17 minutes after arriving at the Border Patrol Station, concluding, “we found Border Patrol provided adequate medical assistance to the mother and her newborn and complied with applicable policies” (original link). The report does find that, after the woman’s release from the hospital, video footage shows her spending a night with her newborn on a bench in a holding cell at the Chula Vista station.

Sector(s): San Diego

Agency(ies): Border Patrol, CBP

Event Type(s): Conditions in Custody, Denial of Medical Care, Rough Rides

Accountability Status: Cleared by DHS OIG

February 4, 2020

Border Patrol agents apprehend 32-year-old James Paul Markowitz in his vehicle in Bracketville, Texas, on suspicion of involvement in an illegal smuggling incident. While it is unclear whether he is at all involved in the incident, Markowitz did have small amounts of methamphetamine and cocaine in his car, which he swallowed in an effort to avoid detection.

During processing at the Bracketville Border Patrol station, Markowitz “began exhibiting signs of distress.” CBP’s notification to Congress read that an ambulance was called at 6:00 PM. A CBS News records review reveals that “the ambulance wasn’t actually called for until 6:26 PM.” Markowitz died of a drug overdose.

Markowitz’s stepfather has been unable to get more information from CBP about the circumstances of his death.

“In a March 2020 letter to the Department of Homeland Security,” CBS reported, “then-Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro and Immigration Task Force Chairwoman Linda Sánchez demanded information about Markowitz’s death and wrote they were “troubled twenty-eight days after the death of James Paul Markowitz without any further details or relevant information to his case.”

— Graham Kates, “Family of U.S. man who died after Border Patrol arrest says government has been tight lipped for a year” (CBS News, February 4, 2021) <https://www.cbsnews.com/news/james-markowitz-border-patrol-arrest-government-silence/>.

Sector(s): Del Rio

Agency(ies): Border Patrol

Event Type(s): Conditions of Arrest or Apprehension, Denial of Medical Care

Accountability Status: Under OPR investigation