ACLU alleges 'unchecked abuse' against Americans at US-Mexico border

By YANAN WANG | The Washington Post | Published: May 18, 2016

Mario Molina was crossing the Ysleta Bridge into Mexico from El Paso, Texas, last May when he was stopped by a Customs and Border Protection officer. Molina, an American citizen, said the officer asked him where he was going and how much money he had.

About $170 or $190, Molina thought at the time. When he reached into his wallet to check, the officer allegedly said: "That's it — you're under arrest. I'm taking you in for questioning." Molina asked what probable cause he had, and he said the officer responded that he didn't need one.

Then, according to Molina, he was taken into an inspection room where officers asked him about his hair color, eye color and skin color. When Molina said the answers were apparent, an officer allegedly slapped him across the face, saying, "You better stop playing your (expletive) silly games with me and do what I tell you to."

After nearly three hours, Molina was released back into El Paso and his belongings were returned, he said. But he noticed that a few things were missing: a silver ring, and nearly $200 in cash.

Molina's story is among 13 allegations detailed in a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Border Communities Coalition on Tuesday. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection, the advocacy groups call for an investigation into "unchecked abuse" at the southwest U.S.-Mexico border.

The Southern Border Communities Coalition is a collection of more than 60 organizations doing human rights work at the border.

"This complaint includes multiple individual complaints of abuse at Southwest border [Port of Entries] involving excessive force; the use of coercion to force individuals to surrender their legal rights and citizenship documents; and the lack of a clear, transparent, and complaint process for individuals to seek redress," the letter said, noting that the accounts reflect "broader patterns" of misconduct.

DHS has not commented on the complaint. At the close of an internal investigation into employee behavior in the agency, a March statement on the CBP website noted that the agency is moving "toward a more transparent and accountable approach to enforcement and workforce integrity, while protecting the public and the men and women of CBP."

In a statement to Buzzfeed News, the agency said: "CBP does not tolerate discrimination nor mistreatment and takes complaints, to include the allegations made in the May 17, 2016 letter, seriously."

Those who claim to have been unfairly detained and abused include American citizens, permanent residents and Mexican citizens with valid visas for visiting the U.S. In several cases, the victims allege that they were yelled at, at times physically assaulted and asked to sign documents that would effectively bar them from re-entering the country.

Victor Gomez, a 40-year-old U.S. citizen, said he was crossing into El Paso with his 11-year-old son in 2013 when he was stopped for a routine inspection. Gomez had served time for a drug conviction 20 years prior, so he was customarily detained at the border. At the time, his son was attending a private school in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, "where he was succeeding academically and socially."

Prepared to be handcuffed, Gomez told the officers to be careful as his son was recovering from a broken arm. He alleged that "Instead of using caution, the official grabbed his son's arm, held his wrist around his back, and yanked him forcefully from the vehicle."

When they were released nearly two hours later, Gomez said he took his son straight to the emergency room, where the boy was diagnosed with a hairline fracture. The hospital visit cost $5,000.

Gomez said he attached the medical bill to a complaint he sent through the CBP's online system, and was in turn told that it was never received, despite repeated attempts to file it.

Also in 2013, Margarita Rodriguez, 59, was returning to El Paso from Ciudad Juarez when her truck was stopped for a secondary inspection at a port of entry. A legal U.S. permanent resident of 35 years, she said the CBP officers accused her of providing them with fake documents.

"Why don't you declare that you are Maria Carillo?" an officer allegedly screamed. "Tell the truth! You are a fugitive."

Rodriguez said the officers repeatedly accused her of having been arrested, when she said she had no criminal record. She said she suffers from severe diabetes and started to feel ill after several hours in the inspection room. After she asked to use the bathroom, two female officers allegedly searched her entire body, including her genitals. She said one of the officers kicked her hard to get her to open her legs more.

At the end of the interrogation, the officers allegedly presented Rodriguez with deportation papers and insisted that she sign them. After she refused to do so without speaking to her children or an attorney, they let her go.

In 2014, Pamela Morales said she was driving into El Paso from Mexico when a CBP officer started pounding on her car window. A 25-year-old American citizen, Morales said the officer then took away her passport, driver's license and car insurance documents. He returned shortly afterward, and Morales asked him for his name. She wanted to file a complaint because he allegedly almost broke her window.

The officer allegedly refused to give her his full name, identifying himself only as "Perez." He called his supervisor, who allegedly warned Morales: "If you submit a complaint against us, I'm going to submit a complaint against you."

"It really mocks our American values of justice and fairness," Cynthia Pompa, a field organizer for the ACLU, told CNN. "[CBP officers] can hurl unfounded allegations at someone, and they don't need to provide evidence of their claim. They can act as a judge. They can act as a jury. They can act as a deporter. And it all goes unchecked."

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