The Other Hearing in Washington

On March 27, as the nation’s attention turned to Washington DC for the second day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearings on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care (“Obamacare”) Act, a separate hearing unfolded across the capital at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This hearing, triggered by long-standing civil society complaints, focused on the Department of Homeland Security’s short-term immigration detention and repatriation practices in the U.S. – Mexico borderlands.


The IACHR hearing specifically focused on a report released in September 2011 by the Arizona-based human rights group No More Deaths, which detailed widespread, systemic abuse of individuals in U.S. Border Patrol detention facilities. The report, titled “A Culture of Cruelty,” was the outcome of more than 15,000 interviews over five years with individuals recently repatriated to Mexico from U.S. Border Patrol custody. Among other things, the report found:


  • 11,384 cases of inadequate access to food and water; children were more likely to be denied water than adults
  • 374 cases of individuals being repatriated without needed emergency medical care or medication
  • coercion into signing legal documents, and other due process violations
  • unsanitary and inhumane processing center conditions
  • verbal, physical and psychological abuse perpetrated by agents against migrants in their custody


Contributing to No More Deaths’ petition before the IACHR were a number of other civil society voices, including the Southern Border Communities Coalition, the Latin America Working Group, the Women’s Refugee Commission, the ACLU of New Mexico and the National Immigration Forum. On top of specific patterns of abuse, commissioners and petitioners raised serious concerns about a lack of transparency and independent oversight within U.S. Customs and Border Protection, specifically in regards to longstanding complaints involving issues of agent misconduct, civil liberties violations and the agency’s commitment to the protection of human rights. The U.S. Border Patrol has refused to publicly release their policies related to detention and repatriation, or to allow civil society organizations access to facilities to monitor conditions. Efforts to use existing oversight mechanisms to address complaints have largely been unproductive, in part due to the fact that all such mechanisms are internal to the Department of Homeland Security.


While likely to have far less immediate impact on U.S. government policies than the Supreme Court “Obamacare” hearings, the implications of the IACHR hearing on U.S. Border Patrol detention and repatriation practices are no less important. Human rights groups from across the southwestern United States have long raised concerns about U.S. Border Patrol practices, which many (including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights) hold to be directly responsible for the more than 2,500 migrant deaths along the U.S. / Mexico border since 2000.


Even more, this hearing sheds light on the pernicious effects of the “Security Industrial Complex” and its unchecked expansion within U.S. society. Perhaps the signature domestic policy accomplishment of the George W. Bush administration, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security represented a concentration of 22 disparate law enforcement agencies within a single federal bureaucracy. Although created in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks, actually existing terrorists have proven far more difficult to track and apprehend than undocumented immigrant workers; increasingly, the might of the United States’ Homeland Security apparatus is targeted against immigrant communities, mixed-status families, and other civilians – such as domestic protest groups.


As the petitioners alleged at the March 27 IACHR hearing, the Department of Homeland Security continues to operate as a rogue agency – with minimal public oversight of its activities, and a refusal to address longstanding complaints about its impacts on communities and individuals across the United States. The abuses documented by border-region civil society groups are but one example of the impunity and secrecy that characterize the department’s practices and attitudes toward the public, and the communities in which they work.   


This is certainly the case for the U.S. Border Patrol. Since 2000 the Border Patrol has grown from approximately 8,000 to more than 21,000 agents, in the process becoming the largest federal law enforcement agency in the United States. At the same time, the Obama administration has detained and deported record numbers of individuals during its first three years in office. Yet problems within the Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security are systemic. The types of abuse reported to advocacy groups remain alarmingly consistent, from year to year, and across interview sites.


In the process of detention and repatriation, psychological, emotional and physical abuse are consistently reported, as are unsafe and unsanitary detention practices. These practices may violate existing repatriation agreements between the governments of the United States and Mexico, as well as asylum and trafficking screening requirements set forth in domestic and international law – including the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization of 2008, the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, and the United Nations Convention Against Torture.


At this moment, it is unclear how the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will act in response to the issues raised in the March 27 hearing. The United States views the commission’s findings and recommendations as non-binding. But if little else is accomplished, the other hearing held in Washington on March 27 is a reminder that almost a decade after its creation, the impacts of domestic policies related to the Department of Homeland Security and launched during the Bush administration remain a pressing matter of concern, and threatening to the principles human rights, the rule of law, and democratic transparency and accountability.


The full hearing can be viewed at:  http://www.youtube.com/user/SobocoMedia

The “Culture of Cruelty” report can be accessed at: http://www.cultureofcruelty.org/


Geoffrey Boyce is an activist and writer whose work centers around U.S. boundary enforcement practices and immigrant rights advocacy. He is also a graduate student at the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. 

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