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Report: Migrants at border allege physical, verbal abuse

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A U.S. Border Patrol truck drives along the fence separating the cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. A new report is the latest to take aim at the policies of U.S. border agents, with recently-repatriated migrants alleging abuse ranging from physical to verbal.

A new report is the latest to take aim at the policies of U.S. agents on the border, this time in the form of complaints of abuse from more than 1,000 recently-repatriated migrants.

The report was put together by the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. -based organization which advocates on behalf of immigrants, with help from the University of Arizona and George Washington University. It tracks and quantifies the alleged abuse of illegal border crossers at the hands of the agents they encounter, with complaints that range from "physical blow" and "non-blow physical force” to verbal abuse and, to a much lesser degree, sexual abuse.

From the report summary:

Overall, we find that the physical and verbal mistreatment of migrants is not a random, sporadic occurrence but, rather, a systematic practice. One indication of this is that 11% of deportees report some form of physical abuse and 23% report verbal mistreatment while in U.S. custody—a finding that is supported by other academic studies and reports from non- governmental organizations.

Another highly disturbing finding is that migrants often note they are the targets for nationalistic and racist remarks—something that in no way is integral to U.S. officials’ ability to function in an effective capacity on a day-to-day basis.

Many of the migrants interviewed by researchers between 2009 and 2012 in six Mexican cities - most of them in border shelters after being removed from the U.S. - said these incidents occurred during the apprehension process.

Among those who alleged physical abuse, the majority (70 percent) of complaints involved "a non-blow form of physical force directed at them, including being pushed or pulled, being dragged or lifted, having pressure exerted upon them with a fist, arm, or knee, being placed in painful or stressful positions, having handcuffs placed on them too tightly, or being spat upon." About a third reported a more serious physical blow, "including being hit or kicked, hit with an object, pushed against an object, or hit/thrown while already constrained."

Six percent reported lasting injuries; three percent reported sexual abuse, including physical searches that they felt went too far. Women constituted a small minority of those interviewed, according to researchers.

Among the migrants who reported verbal abuse, 61 percent complained of what the report calls "characteristics of speech," described as "being cursed at, yelled at in an angry tone, or being told something in English that they could not understand, but that they interpreted as a form of verbal mistreatment due to the tone used and body language."

Another 39 percent reported being insulted directly, including in the form of "nationalistic or racist slurs," something the report's authors pointed out as troubling.

Others interviewed reported verbal threats and the "dismissal of legitimate requests." Also, a companion report that focused on migrants' belongings alleged that 34 percent of respondents said that "at least one of their belongings was taken and not returned during their most recent apprehension." These included clothes, backpacks, cell phones, wallets and money.

Because the incidents reported typically took place at the border, the Homeland Security agency fingered most often by those who alleged mistreatment was the U.S. Border Patrol. A spokesman from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, said officials had yet to review the report and offered no comment.

The agency has seen its share of scrutiny lately over use of force. A September report from Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General that addressed use of force by CBP agents made several recommendations, including more training, audits, and better data-gathering. 

That same month, the agency announced some changes regarding training and the use of force. But Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher told reporters in November that some of the recommendations were "very restrictive," and said the Border Patrol would still allow agents to use deadly force in rock-throwing incidents:

“We shouldn’t have carve-outs in our policy and say, except for this, except for that,” Fisher said in an interview with the Associate Press. “Just to say that you shouldn’t shoot at rock-throwers or vehicles for us, in our environment, was very problematic and could potentially put Border Patrol agents in danger.”

The agency has long defended the use of force in self-defense by agents who get pelted with rocks by smugglers or migrants. But confrontations between rock-throwers and armed agents have led to several agent-involved shootings in recent years; other deaths have involved the use of Tasers and other kinds of force. The report tallies at least 20 recorded killings of Mexican nationals or Mexican Americans by U.S. authorities near the border between 2010 and 2013, including half a dozen deaths on the Mexican side.

Customs and Border Protection was also recently sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, on behalf of a woman who claimed she miscarried after being thrown to the ground in a confrontation with an agent at a Texas border crossing.

In addition to training and audits, researchers who worked on the Immigration Policy Center's abuse report recommended greater transparency in the process. One of the authors, anthropologist Josiah Heyman of the University of Texas, said stricter accountability measures should be worked into legislation if Congress acts on immigration reform.

"We think it is absolutely essential that there be measures in forthcoming legislation addressing oversight and accountability for border enforcement agencies," Heyman said during a telephone conference Tuesday.

Both of the Immigration Policy Center reports can be read here.

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