Immigration

Report: Migrants Held by Border Agencies Hit, Threatened and Sexually Assaulted

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has ramped up a row with the Biden administration over a spike in migrant arrivals
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has ramped up a row with the Biden administration over a spike in migrant arrivals U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Several recalled being punched or kicked. Some alleged threats of sexual violence. Others said they'd been denied food. One man even said a Border Patrol agent's dog bit him in the testicle.

A new Human Rights Watch report paints a grim picture of the situation for migrants and asylum seekers held by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Published on Thursday, the report examines 160 internal reports of misconduct and abuse of asylum seekers in U.S. government custody, most of them dated between 2016 and 2021. HRW obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The misconduct allegations span periods that took place during the presidencies of Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden.


In April 2017, one woman, whose name and nationality weren’t specified in the report, recalled that a Border Patrol agent threw her to the ground, yanked her back up and then “kept slamming me on the ground.”

“He grabbed me by the hair,” she told an asylum officer. “And, when he did that, he drew blood from my ear and my hand.”

Another asylum officer reported that a “young girl was forced to undress and touched inappropriately by a guard,” explaining that they suspected the agent was either with Border Patrol or CBP.

According to one complaint included in the report, in June 2018, a Border Patrol agent in Tucson, Arizona, “advised an applicant ... that it was okay if someone wanted to rape him because he was gay, and wasn't that what he liked.”

"He grabbed me by the hair." - asylum seeker

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In another complaint, a Honduran asylum seeker recounted that staff at CBP facility in Chula Vista, California, “called us sons of bitches, dogs, parasites, trash. Things like that.”


In Texas, one migrant who’d been detained in McAllen and later Kingsville claimed they were held in an overcrowded cell with upward of 60 people. The asylum seeker, a man from Honduras, recalled “scorpions, ants, ticks [and] fleas” in the cell.

After being “unintentionally” bitten in the testicle by a border agent’s dog, yet another asylum seeker claimed that he waited weeks to receive medical treatment. Eventually, according to the complaint, “The applicant was … taken to the hospital, where his testicle had to be surgically removed.”

The incident reports, which are heavily redacted, are “jaw-dropping,” Clara Long, HRW’s associate US director, said in a press release. “These internal government documents make clear that reports of grievous abuses – assaults, sexual abuse, and discriminatory treatment by US agents – are an open secret within [the Department of Homeland Security].”

Speaking to Reuters, a DHS spokesperson insisted that the department “does not tolerate any form of abuse or misconduct.”

Since President Joe Biden entered the Oval Office in January, Republicans around the country, including in Texas, have accused his administration of putting the nation at risk by allowing migrants and asylum seekers to flow across the southern frontier.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, along with other state Republicans, has blamed Biden for a spike in apprehensions on the U.S.-Mexico border. In March, Abbott launched Operation Lone Star, which involves agents from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the National Guard, among others.

Last week, Abbott told Fox News that Biden had “completely abandoned” Texans who live in the borderlands.

The governor also praised former President Donald Trump for his immigration and border policies. "But now, we’re seeing the highest number of cross border crossings and it’s all because of the catastrophic open border policies by the Biden administration," Abbott claimed.

Although border apprehensions have spiked since Biden took office, the numbers had already started to rise in April 2020, when Trump was still president.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has defended its border and immigration policies while also vowing to "take urgent action" to reverse Trump's policies.

Speaking to reporters, White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently said Biden wants "a new immigration policy that is humane, that is orderly, that does have robust asylum processing."
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Patrick Strickland is the news editor at the Dallas Observer. He's a former senior reporter at Al Jazeera English and has reported for the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Politico EU and The New Republic, among others.