AGENCIES UNDER THE Department of Homeland Security have been accused of performing forced hysterectomies on detained immigrants, deporting witnesses to systemic sexual abuse in immigration detention, and defying federal court orders to halt deportations. They have separated children from their families at the border, used the Covid-19 pandemic as justification to turn them back altogether, killed people on both sides of the border, and abducted protesters against police violence from the streets of an American city.
As The Intercept has reported, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, two of DHS’s most abuse-ridden agencies, have long resisted public scrutiny of their record by stonewalling calls for transparency and defying demands for accountability, including by Congress. But a full accounting of DHS agencies’ misconduct may be impossible not just in real time but well into the future. The Border Patrol has petitioned the National Archives and Records Administration to designate thousands of its internal records documenting abuse as “temporary,” slating them for destruction in as early as four years. A similar request by ICE was granted last year.
When unidentified federal agents later determined to be Border Patrol agents dragged protesters into unmarked vans in Portland, Oregon, this summer, U.S. citizens got a rare glimpse of the impunity with which the agency treats migrants and their advocates on the border. With 44,000 agents and a budget of $17 billion, CBP is the largest law enforcement agency in the United States. It has also long been one of its most lawless — with a long history of corruption, neglect, racism, violence, and sexual abuse.
The Border Patrol’s proposal to the National Archives, which makes decisions about the retention of U.S. government documents, would designate as temporary all records regarding CBP’s dealings with DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: a recipient of complaints of civil rights abuses from across the department. These records include reports on concluded investigations, sworn witness statements, and transcripts of interviews — material that constitutes invaluable testimony of CBP’s conduct. The proposal would also mark as temporary internal records concerning administrative and criminal investigations of CBP agents, as well as records collected by CBP in connection to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA. Designating these records as temporary would then allow the agency to schedule their destruction — in as little as four years for the complaints of civil rights violations, and in 25 years for the remaining records.
“It’s a pretty striking proposal: It would erase a lot of historical memory of CBP abuses that are very systemic in the agency,” Jesse Franzblau, a senior policy analyst at the National Immigrant Justice Center, told The Intercept. “An institution that’s supposed to be in charge of preserving historical memory and historical record of agencies of the U.S. government shouldn’t be considering a proposal that would allow an agency — and particularly an agency with such dark history of abuse — to be able to destroy records that encompass really important, really critical, historical value.”