On December 12, 2012, a 54 year old woman (identified only as Jane Doe) received additional screening when crossing the U.S./Mexico border at El Paso after a drug dog alerted on her person. After the strip search yielded nothing, she was forcibly taken to University Medical Center where she was shackled to a examination table and subjected to hours of vaginal and anal probing, as well as CT scans and other intrusive examinations. She was then asked to sign a consent form, and, when she refused, she was charged $5,000 for the expense of the examinations. This was all done without her consent and without a warrant. What’s worse? She is an American citizen.
Ms. Doe’s experience is not unique, nor is it limited to American citizens. In 2014, settlement was reached in Lopez-Venegas v. Johnson, a case involving the intentional coercion and intimidation of Mexican immigrants. The court found that Customs and Border Patrol Agents were brutalizing immigrants in order to get them to waive their constitutionally guaranteed rights to due process and to plead their case before an immigration judge.
Border Patrol is plagued by corruption and excessive use of force, according to a report from the Homeland Security Advisory Council. 170 agency employees have faced corruption charges since 2005- more than any other law enforcement agency. Just last month, former CBP Agent Juan Pimentel pled guilty to smuggling 110 pounds of what he thought was cocaine from Mexico to Chicago. Pimentel also pled guilty to bribery for being paid $50,000 to commit the act.
As well as identifying many of the systemic problems facing the CBP, the report recommends ways in which to curb corruption and excessive force within the agency. Drone patrols replacing car patrols, new thresholds for acceptable use of force, and mandatory body cameras (which have been shown to reduce excessive force in other law enforcement agencies) are among things mentioned by the report as being potential fixes. Despite these relatively benign suggestions, Border Patrol Union Vice President Shawn Moran would rather not see them implemented. Commenting on a recent LA Times story he said,
Are agents supposed to hesitate and not defend themselves because someone set up an arbitrary threshold above which someone will be scrutinized? All this is going to do is further demoralize agents and create a disincentive to agents to go out there and do their job.
Ms. Jane Doe was awarded over $1.5 million in her lawsuit against the CBP and Texas Tech (who operates University Medical Center where her examination took place), but no amount of money can compensate for the denial of her constitutional rights or the humiliation she must have felt. I’m glad that she won her case. Too often the government refuses to acknowledge its own unlawfulness, so it makes me optimistic to see the she was awarded compensation. In the words of Ms. Doe’s attorney (ACLU senior staff attorney Edgar Saldivar), “We have to fight for everything we can get to make sure people [at] the border are protected constitutionally.”