Last Updated: May 26, 2020
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)––and in particular the Border Patrol–– systematically violates border residents’ rights. Countless cases of abuse and fatal encounters with CBP have been documented.
Thousands of federal agents patrol the border region with impunity, stopping and searching border residents through extraordinary and unprecedented powers. Under these powers, agents interrogate people, board and search their vehicles and other conveyances, and enter private property (but not dwellings) without a warrant.
CBP now has access to classified information with virtually no checks on its use or misuse, and conducts warrantless surveillance on individuals throughout the U.S. using private phone data, a practice questioned by senators in 2020.
The Border Patrol has a clear goal of becoming a national police force, most clearly exemplified by the deployment of agents to cities seeing protests and demonstrations for racial justice in the summer of 2020. The outsized agency now has an eye in extending its culture of abuse to cities and towns outside of the southern border.
Fatal Encounters with CBP
Cruel and unaccountable border agents have patrolled the border since the 1920s. When the Border Patrol was created in 1924, white supremacists entered the agency, building the culture of xenophobia and impunity that exists to this day. They built a culture of corruption as well — CBP agents are arrested for criminal activity and corruption at a per-capita rate that exceeds any other federal agency.
Even with a legacy of violence and hate, the Border Patrol as we know it today wouldn’t exist until the 1990s, when policies like Operation Gatekeeper would over-inflate the agency’s budget, and give them carte blanche to fully militarize the southern border.
Because of these dangerous enforcement-only policies and culture of impunity, more than 130 people have died as a result of an encounter with Customs and Border Protection agents since 2010. CBP’s culture of abuse and reckless use of force has led to the deaths of many U.S. citizens and noncitizens both at U.S. ports of entry and in the southern border region. A majority of victims are killed in fatal shootings, while a significant number have died as a result of reckless car chases, untreated medical issues and potential neglect, or other forms of violence.
Beginning with the horrific killing of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas in 2010, SBCC has tracked deaths of U.S. citizens and noncitizens in the southern border region, through analyses of media coverage and official Customs and Border Protection communications. These tragic losses of life represent only a fraction of those lost to border militarization, as they do not include those disappeared in the harsh and deadly wilderness by the wasteful wall and violent agents, nor do they include those impacted by border agents deployed to other parts of the country.
In the last 10 years, 2012, 2019, and 2020 were the deadliest years so far with a total of 17 reported deaths per year attributed to CBP interactions. The graphic below shows the reported cause of death for people killed in a CBP interaction. In many cases, the cause of death is not known, either because of a lack of media reporting or a lack of transparency from CBP.
The majority of people that have died in an encounter with CBP agents have died due to a fatal shooting. Between 2010 and 2021, 45% of all victims of CBP violence were killed in a shooting. One quarter of victims died as the result of a fatal car change and an additional 5% died due to a car accident. Multiple cases have been reported where CBP agents have shot at cars, pursued vehicles causing them to crash or rollover, and even used their cars to run over migrants. Seventeen percent of victims have died of medical issues or potential medical neglect, like James Paul Markowitz who died at a hospital after showing ‘signs of distress’ while in custody.
Deaths as a result of Border Patrol encounters are geographically concentrated in the highly militarized southern border region, but people have also been killed by CBP agents along the U.S.-Canada Border. Between 2010 and 2021, 71 people were killed in Texas, followed by 26 victims in California, 22 in Arizona, and 7 in New Mexico. In the north, 2 people were killed in Wisconsin, Maine, and Michigan respectively, and one person in the state of New York.
Demographic information on victims killed by CBP encounters can be sparse, but a significant percentage of victims are young. About a quarter (23%) of all victims killed between 2010 and 2021 were between the ages of 18 to 29.
The story of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas’ brutal killing by border agents and his family’s quest for justice highlights horrors of militarization, but it’s also the story of how the border community has struggled for justice.
Similarly, the nationality of the victims killed by CBP is unknown in half of the cases. Mexicans are the most-often killed by CBP agents (34 people), followed by U.S. citizens (24), Guatemalans (14), and Hondurans (2). Other demographic data like race and ethnicity are rarely reported or tracked, and are thus not included in this analysis.
Among victims killed by Border Patrol, men make up a majority (64%) of victims. Between 2010 and 2021, 12% of victims were female and 24% were unknown.
Since 2010 there have been at least 6 documented cases of people killed by Border Patrol across the border. The case of 16-year old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez stands out — this Mexican teen was killed after reportedly throwing rocks across the border in Arizona. José Antonio was shot 10 times in the back. The agent who killed him was charged with second-degree murder but was later acquited and found not guilty.
In early 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similar case, deciding that Mexican victims had no authority to sue in U.S. courts. The court stressed that this was an issue of national security, and justice for cross-border shootings could require congressional authorization.
ANASTASIO HERNANDEZ ROJAS
On May 28, 2010, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a longtime resident of San Diego, was brutally beaten, shot with a Taser and killed by border agents at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. UPDATE: His family has recently settled with the U.S. Government over their civil lawsuit.
JOSE ANTONIO ELENA RODRIGUEZ
On October 10, 2012, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16 year-old Mexican resident was shot in the back after an alleged rocking incident with a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent. UPDATE: Judge to let Border Patrol agent's murder case proceed.
SERGIO ADRIAN HERNANDEZ-GUERECA
On June 7, 2010, Sergio Adrian Hernandez-Guereca, a 15 year-old Mexican resident was shot by a CBP agent while standing on the Mexican side of the Mexico–United States border, and the agent was on the American side.
Border Patrol Corruption & Abuse
The number of deaths resulting from an interaction with CBP officers are indicators of the horrific culture of abuse, corruption, and disregard for human life that plagues the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency. Unfortunately, these killings are not the only examples of abuse of power and corruption within CBP.
Numerous studies — both internal and external — have shown that CBP is plagued with a culture of impunity, corruption, and abuse. Its systemic problems also run deep. The discovery of a secret Facebook group full of racist, misogynist and xenophobic posts by Border Patrol agents brought to light more evidence of the agency’s culture of abuse. In it, agents routinely made sexist jokes, made fun of migrant deaths, and shared other hateful content. A year later, little action was taken by CBP, again pointing to the lack of transparency and accountability for the agency. Countless other reports have linked CBP to cases of officer misconduct, corruption and a general lack of accountability for criminal conduct and abusive actions.
A note on CBP & Government Data
This section briefly outlines data illustrating the range of CBP corruption and abuse. It is important to note that the agency is notorious for its lack of transparency and for hiding or manipulating data and definitions -- such as changing the definition of what they define as ‘corruption’ to underestimate the number of cases. As such, data on alleged cases of CBP abuse or corruption are limited, and some are unreliable. As with other government data, figures and reports are interpreted with caution. In some cases, external researchers and advocates have produced evidence to substantiate underwhelming government reports. However, many statistics are hidden or are simply not collected by the agency. In 2020, CBP even requested that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) approve the destruction of internal CBP records of misconduct. What’s more, the agency was recently reclassified as a ‘security agency’ by the Trump administration. This makes CBP even less transparent as the reclassification shields the agency from releasing even more information to the public.
For example, complaints of abuse and rights violations can be made to DHS’ office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL). The office, which is tasked with oversight of agencies like CBP, publishes data on complaints and allegations of abuse against CBP agents. However, there are numerous reasons why this information cannot be considered to be reliable. An ACLU-Arizona report states, for instance, that the CRCL only publishes data on reports they choose to investigate -- not those received. What’s more, only complaints done in English are presented, wholly excluding any complaints done in Spanish or other languages. That same ACLU report further found gross differences in the number of civil rights violations that the oversight agency reported to Congress, and reports that they obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request. In fiscal year 2014, for example, CRCL reported just 3 cases of Fourth Amendment violations -- but the ACLU found over 100 cases that same time period for only the Tucson sector. Further concerns on the quality of these data arise when one considers how the data is collected and stored, or even how terms are defined -- such as ‘abuse’ or ‘corruption.’
Ultimately the quality and validity of any data depends on how it was collected, how it was cleaned, and how it is finally reported and interpreted. In many cases, CBP or other government agencies are the only source of data available for advocates or researchers. In those instances where external research is missing, an extra layer of caution is applied.
Excessive Use of Force
Excessive and unnecessary use of force — both lethal and non-lethal — are common in CBP. Allegations are routinely made of Border Patrol agents committing violence against migrants, such as the recent case of an agent ‘inadvertently’ running over someone with their vehicle.
In 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioned a review of its use of force policies from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) after mounting public pressure. The research institute primarily found a number of issues in how CBP officers used excessive and deadly force, recorded incidents, and carried out investigations. The researchers reviewed 67 cases between 2010 and 2012 to make their determinations and recommendations, confirming that agents too-often relied on deadly violence against rock throwers, shot at vehicles, and rarely investigated deadly force incidents. This report, which CBP fought to make public, eventually led to an updated use-of-force handbook.
Data on excessive use of force by agents is limited. But the information that researchers have been able to access paints a picture of CBP’s reckless tactics when patrolling the border or conducting apprehensions. A limited analysis of formal complaints filed to CBP’s Office of Internal Affairs by the American Immigration Council shows that a majority of allegations against agents are for physical abuse (40%) or use of excessive force (38%). Reports of “unspecified abuse” ranked third at 13% of all formal complaints made between 2009 and 2012.
Data also show that CBP and Border Patrol face very little accountability for their violent tactics. The same American Immigration Council report found that among the complaints analyzed in their dataset, a majority of cases resulted in no action taken (58%). In one case, a Border Patrol agent allegedly kicked a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry. In another allegation, a man reported being stomped on his back by an agent after he was handcuffed and arrested. Both of these cases resulted in ‘no action’ taken, according to the analysis.