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As border security expands, complaints of abuse rise among Americans

  • McClatchy Foreign Staff
  • Published Wednesday, April 30, 2014, at 4:06 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, April 30, 2014, at 9:02 p.m.

— A series of lawsuits filed in recent months in federal courts along the U.S. border with Mexico highlight what advocates say is a growing list of complaints against two U.S. agencies that have expanded rapidly amid the clamor to secure the nation’s borders.

In one lawsuit, centered on events in Chula Vista, Calif., a Border Patrol agent is accused of leaping on the hood of a car driven by a mother of five and shooting her dead. She was unarmed. The agent had been fired from his previous job as a sheriff’s deputy for a variety of misconduct.

In a second case, a Customs officer in Brownsville, Texas, violently pushed a disabled woman to the ground. She had a miscarriage the next day. Border officers also had to call firefighters to remove handcuffs that allegedly had bound her wrists too tightly.

For a third woman, her return to the United States was intrusive and painful. She was pulled from a line at an El Paso, Texas, border crossing, apparently on the suspicion that she was carrying drugs. She was handcuffed. Over the next six hours, agents escorted her to a hospital, where they oversaw the probing of her anus and vagina, forced her to take a laxative and then watched as she moved her bowels. When no drugs were found, they ordered her to submit to an X-ray and a CT scan.

When the ordeal was over, the officers asked her to sign a consent form before they allowed her to return to her home in New Mexico. When she refused, the hospital billed her thousands of dollars for the procedures.

Critics say the lawsuits, all three filed by U.S. citizens, are part of a pattern that’s become endemic to the nation’s efforts to secure its southern border. In addition to complaints that U.S. Border Patrol agents have used deadly force when their lives were not at risk _ agents have killed 21 people since the beginning of 2010, most of them unarmed migrants _ agents from the two federal agencies that monitor the borders stand accused of mistreating American citizens.

Violent confrontations are only part of the picture. U.S. citizens who live along the border complain that U.S. agents have become a virtual interior police force _ disrespectful of private property, looking for pretexts to search vehicles and detaining residents for hours at checkpoints.

“In the last three years, the Border Patrol has caused me more damage than the illegals,” said John Ladd, whose family has operated a ranch in southeast Arizona for the past 118 years. “They’ve abused private property rights immensely.”

Fueling the problems, critics say, has been the agencies’ rapid expansion, which has led to poor hiring and training and an institutional unwillingness to acknowledge agents’ mistakes that encourages the frequent use of physical violence. One lawyer who deals with the agencies accuses them of nurturing “an overly aggressive, bullying culture.”

It’s difficult to quantify the number of complaints of abuse that have been filed against the two agencies. The Department of Homeland Security releases no official statistics on complaints lodged against the agencies, both of which are part of the DHS: Customs and Border Protection, which staffs the nearly 50 official land points of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the Border Patrol, whose agents monitor the border between points of entry.

One advocacy group, No More Deaths, which provides food, water and medical care to migrants, said it had lodged 90 complaints in recent years with the DHS’s civil rights office, accusing agents of unlawful searches, excessive force and lengthy detentions at Border Patrol checkpoints and by roving Border Patrol units, which operate up to 100 miles from the border.

In nearly all cases, the DHS office hasn’t responded for months, then has dismissed the complaint “because there is no evidence in their records” pertaining to it, said No More Deaths’ spokesman, Geoffrey Boyce, a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Arizona.

“It doesn’t seem to be the case that they understand limits to their authority,” Boyce said. “There’s a general feeling that this is an agency that’s not only not interested in community concerns but often appears contemptuous of them.”

Others have filed complaints with the DHS over what they say is the routine violation of civil rights by Border Patrol agents. In January, James Lyall, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona, complained to the DHS’s deputy inspector general that some Border Patrol agents falsely tell U.S. citizens they’ve detained that they can’t make phone calls or take videos of searches of their vehicles.

“Multiple citizens have reported being told by agents, ‘You have no rights here,’ or that refusal to consent to a search gives agents probable cause for a search,” Lyall said in his Jan. 15 letter, which detailed the case of a 61-year-old retiree who was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint one day last December. When an agent opened a car door and directed a drug-sniffing dog to enter, the retiree objected.

“Shut your f---ing mouth,” the retiree was told, according to the letter.

In written comments to McClatchy, a spokesman for the two agencies, Douglas Mosier, rejected allegations that abuses have become systemic. He also rejected charges that the rapid growth of the agencies in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has led to an erosion of hiring standards and the use of excessive force. He, as well as other spokesmen for the Border Patrol and the DHS, declined to address the specifics of any abuse allegations.

“CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission and always regrets the loss of life. An overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their day-to-day duties with honor and distinction,” he said. “We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks.”

Even some defenders of the agencies raise questions about how they’ve handled Congress’ demand for ever more agents as the need for more border security has become a largely unchallenged article of faith on Capitol Hill. The rapid expansion has made it impossible to vet new agents properly or train them thoroughly, they say. In the last seven years, the Border Patrol has doubled in size to 21,370 agents; Customs and Border Protection, already with 21,650 officers, is mandated to add 4,000 more over the next two years.

“They boosted the size of the Border Patrol immensely in a very short period of time,” said Jim Dorcy, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Retired Border Patrol Officers, a civic and social group. “Some guys have been on the job two or three years and they have not had a background check. They’ve even hired illegal aliens.”

The growth should have occurred more slowly and it “should’ve been an evolutionary process,” Dorcy added. “Congress I blame more than anyone. . . . No patience at all. They wanted it done overnight.”

Poor hiring may have been at the root of the lawsuit filed last Oct. 1 over the Sept. 22, 2012, death of Valeria Tachiquin, a 32-year-old mother of five, in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb that butts up against the border across from Tijuana, Mexico. Tachiquin grew up in San Diego County.

Plainclothes Border Patrol agents went to an apartment to pick up a male felon who’d been deported but had returned. When the agents arrived, Tachiquin walked out of the apartment and got into her blue Honda.

Agents tried to stop her from leaving, although her attorney, Eugene Iredale, says they had no legal basis to arrest her. Among the agents was Justin Tackett, a Border Patrol agent with a troubled work history.

Tachiquin was unarmed, although an autopsy later determined that she had methamphetamine in her system.

As Tachiquin tried to drive off, Tackett brandished his service firearm and jumped on the hood of her car, waving the gun and shouting. The lawsuit says Tachiquin stopped the car and Tackett got off the hood. She put her car in reverse.

“Even though not in danger of death or serious bodily injury, Tackett fired his government-issued semiautomatic firearm again and again, walking forward as he fired at the retreating Valeria,” the complaint says. He shot her nine times.

The death drew attention to Tackett, who’d worked for nearly three years as a sheriff’s deputy in Imperial County, east of San Diego, then resigned in 2003 before a notice of termination could take effect that declared him unfit for the job.

The notice cited “unprofessional conduct, dishonesty, violation of or refusal to obey reasonable regulations, insubordination, violation of rules, incompetence and failure to follow proper procedures of arrest, search and seizure and treatment of persons in custody.”

In one incident, Tackett turned the heat on in his squad car and locked a suspect inside as the outside temperature climbed to 102 degrees, San Diego’s ABC 10News reported. Tackett was also accused of defying orders not to conduct random probation checks and warrantless searches of people he stopped, as well as reckless driving that led to four accidents, including the rollover of a cruiser.

After leaving his Imperial County job, Tackett took a position as a community liaison for now-retired U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who during a 28-year career on Capitol Hill became the powerful chair of the House Armed Services Committee and a strong proponent of expanding the Border Patrol. Hunter recommended Tackett for his Border Patrol position.

Joe Kasper, a spokesman for the former legislator, said he recalled Tackett as “energetic” and that he “did a good job.” Kasper remains the spokesman for Hunter’s successor, his son, Duncan Hunter Jr., who also is a strong proponent of expanding the Border Patrol.

The DHS declined to comment on Tackett’s case. He remains on the job, said a spokesman, Tim Hamill, a fact that incenses Tachiquin’s father, Valentin Tachiquin, a corrections officer for the California state prison system.

“He should never have been given a badge or a gun,” Valentin Tachiquin said. Had he made a similar error, Tachiquin said, “I’d be out of the job. Not only that, I’d be in prison.”

The second lawsuit centers on Laura Mireles, an employee at a duty-free store in Brownsville, Texas, who weighs 100 pounds and stands 5 feet 1. Her hands and legs suffer from congenital malformations. She’s able to write and to walk, but the impediments are obvious to anyone who sees her. Her car carries a disabled placard from the state of Texas.

Like many U.S. citizens living near the border, Mireles, who’s in her early 30s, crosses the Rio Grande into Mexico regularly as part of her job.

According to a lawsuit filed Oct. 21, Mireles was returning to the United States on the night of Nov. 5, 2012, after picking up store keys from a fellow employee across the bridge in Mexico. A Customs and Border Protection officer waved her through and signaled that she could use a special lane that bypasses vehicle X-ray machines.

Back on U.S. soil, Mireles locked up the duty-free store with a fellow employee, then saw flashing lights. A CBP officer said he needed to search her car. She consented. When she saw the officer open her purse, she stepped a bit closer. When another officer warned her to back up, “she politely explained that she only wanted to watch,” the lawsuit says.

One of the officers walked toward her. “With no warning, he forcibly grabbed her with both hands, threw her onto the ground and placed her face down,” the suit says, adding that he put his 200-pound weight on her.

“As a result of the agent’s actions, our client’s pants were ripped open and she had a wound to the knee,” said Adriana Pinon, one of several attorneys for Mireles from the Texas branch of the ACLU. “She wasn’t posing any threat to the officers.”

Scared and crying, Mireles asked an officer why she was being mistreated.

“He responded by telling her to shut up or he would hit her with an object,” presumably referring to his stun gun, the suit says.

Mireles spent two hours in custody. No contraband was found. When firefighters succeeded later in removing her handcuffs, her wrists had raw wounds, and she was taken by ambulance to a hospital. The next day she miscarried, and her gynecologist said it was a result of the previous day’s incident, the suit says.

The DHS declined to comment on the case, but in a Jan. 27 filing the government asserted that the officer “acted within the scope of his CBP employment at the time of the incident” and denies allegations of abuse. It acknowledged that the handcuffs had to be cut from Mireles’ wrists but said that was because the “key stuck in the lock.” The filing said “defendants deny this occurred because plaintiff was handcuffed so tightly.”

The ACLU’s Pinon is also an attorney in the third case, filed Dec. 18 in El Paso. Her client, a 54-year-old woman from Lovington, N.M., was returning one afternoon from a visit to a family friend in Mexico, crossing by foot on a bridge.

When she got to the port of entry, “a drug-sniffing dog jumped on her,” an action that officers saw as an alert of possible smuggling, the suit says, identifying the plaintiff only as Jane Doe because of the humiliation due to what unfolded.

Female Customs officers led her to a private room and conducted a visual and manual inspection of her genitals and anus, the suit says. When they found nothing, they took her in handcuffs to University Medical Center of El Paso, which is associated with Texas Tech University Medical School and claims to be the largest public hospital along the U.S.-Mexico border.

When she inquired, the officers said they didn’t need a warrant, the suit says. At the hospital, the officers shackled her to an examining table and ordered her to take a laxative, then observed her forced bowel movement into a portable toilet. Finding nothing, they ordered an X-ray.

Still unsatisfied, the agents supervised as medical personnel “inserted a speculum into her vagina, performed a rectal exam on her and conducted a bimanual cavity search of her vagina,” the suit adds. All the while, the suit alleges, “the defendants did not even have the decency to close the examining room so that Ms. Doe would not also be subjected to being observed by passers-by as she endured a forced gynecological exam.”

At the end of six hours of “dehumanizing, invasive and degrading searches,” the CBP officers told her to sign a consent form for the medical procedures, saying it was the only way she could avoid being billed. She refused.

The hospital later presented her with a bill for more than $5,000 for its services, the suit says.

The hospital said its medical staff had complied with applicable laws, and a lawyer for the medical center, Laura Cavaretta, told a news conference April 4 that policy required that law enforcement personnel who brought in detained people for body cavity searches must obtain warrants, a condition that was echoed by Dr. Jose Burgos, an internist at the medical center.

But they offered no explanation of why such an invasive search was conducted without a warrant, and the medical center’s spokeswoman, Margaret Althoff-Olivas, declined to answer any other questions, including whether any hospital employees had been disciplined in the case.

She said sending Jane Doe a bill after her intrusive search was an error. It should have been sent to the CBP, she indicated.

“We forgave that bill,” she said.

Email: tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @timjohnson4

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