On Monday, we finally learned the outcome of a congressional investigation into the 9,500-member Customs and Border Protection Facebook group in which members posted a doctored image of “Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant” and made jokes about the deaths of migrants.
In July 2019, ProPublica published the blockbuster report exposing the group and its members’ conduct. The agency chief at the time, Carla Provost, promised swift action, saying “these posts are completely inappropriate” and that agents “will be held accountable.”
But in the two years since, the public heard virtually nothing from Customs and Border Protection, the more-than-45,000-person agency charged with overseeing U.S. borders, about what that discipline would look like, as the Trump administration stymied attempts at congressional oversight. Ultimately, a report from the committee investigating the agency showed that the worst offenders—including those who posted disparaging comments about dead migrant children and those who shared the sexually abusive photoshopped depictions of Ocasio-Cortez—were recommended to be removed. Yet, in almost every instance, the recommendations were overturned by senior CBP officials. Many offenders received no discipline at all.
The committee report paints a picture of an organization rife with a violently abusive mentality toward the public, a sense of total impunity to revel in that abuse, and virtually zero accountability. The agency’s Discipline Review Board found 60 cases of misconduct and ultimately recommended removal in 24 cases, but only two agents ultimately lost their jobs. Many others had their lesser recommended disciplinary actions reduced even further.
It’s worth zeroing in on the specific cases, though, to get a sense of what is allowed at CBP. Many of these agents are still serving the public and policing people crossing the border.
The most high-profile findings in the ProPublica report were the revelations about multiple members sharing sexually violent images of Ocasio-Cortez. One of those agents, who shared a doctored image of Donald Trump sexually assaulting Ocasio-Cortez, was fired. But the other, who posted an image of a penis going through a fence and Ocasio-Cortez superimposed on the other side of the fence with the caption “Lucky Illegal Immigrant Glory Hole Special Starring AOC,” had his sanction reduced from dismissal to 60-day suspension with back pay.
In another case, an agent was recommended for removal after he posted an “internal video of CBP’s Tactical Unit that showed a group of migrants under pursuit, including a migrant fleeing and falling off a cliff to their death” and an obscene comment about an unnamed member of Congress. “The deciding official reduced the discipline to a 30-day suspension,” the committee notes.
Others evaded accountability by seeking and acquiring retirements with full benefits after they had been recommended for dismissal. In one such case, an agent hypothesized that a photo of a drowned father and his 23-month-old daughter had been doctored by Democratic operatives, describing the dead child and his father as “floaters.” That officer had previously been disciplined on three separate occasions for inappropriate comments on Myspace, for having lost property, and for “making sexually inappropriate gestures to a fellow Border Patrol agent.” The officer was recommended for dismissal but retired before he could face discipline, receiving his full retirement package including “disability annuity, Social Security benefits, and other payments from qualified federal retirement plans.” The agent “faced no discipline for misconduct” on the Facebook page.
In other cases, lesser punishments were ultimately reduced. One officer who posted on the Facebook page that “these children arent [sic] going to separate themselves,” along with separate homophobic comments, had a three-day suspension reduced to one day.
Given CBP’s history as perhaps the worst federal agency in the country, none of this is all that surprising. The agency was responsible for enacting Trump’s cruelest immigration policies, including the blatantly illegal practice of family separation. The agency also willfully violated court orders in implementing Trump’s first illegal Muslim ban. One current top official, Brian Hastings, testified in 2019 that a 3-year-old girl detained at the border and separated from her grandmother might be “a criminal or a national security threat to the United States.” Ultimately, though, the culture of abuse, total impunity, and lack of accountability runs through the organization top to bottom, as the oversight committee’s report makes incredibly clear. One member of the Facebook group at the center of this scandal was the former chief of the United States Border Patrol, Provost, herself. Indeed, the committee found that Provost, who is now retired, was active on Facebook at the same time as some of the worst abusive posts. But, just like other officers, Provost was not disciplined. Ultimately, CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility “found insufficient evidence to support administrative action against Chief Provost and closed her case.”
The committee’s findings raise questions about what it will take to punish abusive officers and improve CBP’s culture. These questions are not new, either. Two years ago, ProPublica reported how an outside advisory panel in 2016 described the agency’s “discipline system” as “broken” and made several recommendations that were never implemented. Part of the problem, the reporters found, is that misconduct investigations are handled by several different jurisdictions, resulting in “bureaucratic turf battles and a general inefficiency.” So until CBP is totally revamped, or even disbanded, it will continue to be rife with abuse.