Federal Border Officials in El Paso Accused of Coercion, Abuse

Federal officials stationed on the Texas-Mexico border called legal border crossers “whores” and “criminals” and subjected others to unwarranted searches and coercion, according to a complaint a civil liberties group submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general Tuesday.

Federal officials stationed on the Texas-Mexico border called legal border crossers “whores” and criminals and subjected them to unwarranted searches and coercion, according to a complaint a civil liberties group submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general Tuesday.

The complaint, filed by the Texas and New Mexico chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, stems from 13 incidents that occurred between 2013 and 2015 at Customs and Border Protection’s El Paso field office, which includes ports of entry in New Mexico.

The ACLU said the allegations “reveal a pattern of CBP coercion and abuse that erodes community trust in law enforcement and leads to summary deportations on the border.”

In one alleged incident, Ciudad Juárez resident Amanda Rodríguez Varela, 51, was chastised after telling Customs and Border Protection officers she was a women’s rights advocate in Mexico, called a “whore” and falsely accused of being a prostitute. She was held for more than 10 hours by CBP officials before signing documents she said contained a fabricated transcript of her interview with the agents.

In another alleged incident, a woman referred to as “Jane Doe” said she was unjustly searched one morning in 2014 after attempting to cross into El Paso, where she worked as a housekeeper at the municipal courthouse.

During the "extremely humiliating" search, officials "made her lower her pants and underwear to her knees," the complaint said. She was held for about three hours before being allowed to leave, according to the complaint.

In a statement, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman Daniel Hetlage in Washington said the agency was aware of the allegations and was reviewing the complaint in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security and the department's office of the Inspector General and office for civil rights and liberties.

“CBP does not tolerate discrimination nor mistreatment and takes complaints, to include the allegations made in the May 17, 2016 letter, seriously,” the statement says. “CBP provides ongoing training in customer service and professionalism at the entry-level, and throughout an officer's career and has a robust Professionalism Service Manager program with dedicated officers covering all operational environments to specifically handle professionalism-related issues and concerns which are highlighted via posters and outreach at all ports of entry.”

The current allegations aren’t the first time Customs and Border Protection in El Paso has been accused of wrongdoing.

In 2013, the ACLU sued the El Paso CBP field office after a New Mexico resident claimed she was subjected to unnecessary body cavity searches and CT scans after attempting to cross the border at the Cordova Bridge in El Paso in December 2012. University Medical Center, whose staff conducted the intrusive search, was also named in the lawsuit. It was settled in 2014 after she was awarded more than $1 million.