WASHINGTON — After it was revealed in 2019 that scores of border officials belonged to a private Facebook group that contained racist and otherwise offensive posts, investigations into the misconduct resulted in minimal discipline, according to a House Oversight and Reform Committee report released Monday.
Where a disciplinary board recommended two dozen firings, instead suspensions and letters of reprimand were issued and just two lost their jobs. A Border Patrol agent who posted some of the most offensive images was allowed to retire with disability and benefits.
The report, released by Democrats on the committee, comes at a time when the behavior of Border Patrol agents is under scrutiny again, this time after agents on horseback corralled Black migrants in the Texas border town of Del Rio last month.
The same office responsible for overseeing investigations of 135 Border Patrol employees related to the 2019 Facebook group, called “I’m 10-15” — a reference to a law enforcement code for immigrants living in the country illegally who are in custody — is also conducting the Del Rio inquiry.
After the investigation, 60 employees were found to have violated the agency’s code of conduct after posting offensive images and memes, including one questioning whether a photograph of a dead migrant father and child was staged, and obscenely doctored pictures of Hispanic lawmakers. Ultimately two employees were fired.
Customs and Border Protection’s “failure to prevent these violent and offensive statements by its own agents or impose adequate discipline creates a serious risk that this behavior will continue,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and chair of the oversight committee, said in a statement. “As we saw with the mistreatment of migrants by Border Patrol agents in Del Rio, Texas, last month, systemic behavior problems within CBP persist.”
The Department of Homeland Security said there was a departmentwide review to identify and end “intolerable prejudice,” as well as to change policies and training.
“CBP will not tolerate hateful, misogynist or racist behavior, or any conduct that is unbecoming of the honor we hold as public servants,” an agency spokesperson, Luis Miranda, said Monday in a statement. “CBP is working to review policies and to underscore the need to respect the dignity of every individual, fight against discrimination, safeguard civil rights and civil liberties, and increase transparency and accountability.”
The president of the Border Patrol union, Brandon Judd, said the disciplinary process for CBP was standard across the federal government and reflective of the justice system, which was built on a person being innocent until proven guilty. “Not the other way around or guilty solely based on an allegation,” he said.
The Border Patrol had a high-profile role as an enforcer of then-President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policies. Officials at CBP were aware of the Facebook group in 2016, the report said. In 2019, the group had about 9,500 members. Two of the agency’s chiefs were members of the group, and both justified their memberships as a way to keep track of their workforce.
But critics have pointed to the “I’m 10-15” group as evidence of a deep-rooted culture within the Border Patrol that has led to the regular debasement of migrants. The Project on Government Oversight, an external watchdog group, recently called CBP the federal government’s “least transparent and accountable” law enforcement agency. The agency investigated 13 other racist and sexist posts in the private group in 2016 and 2017, the report said, resulting in a three-day suspension in one case, written reprimands or counseling in eight, and no action in four.
The Trump administration had blocked the House committee’s inquiry, which began in 2019 after the Facebook group was revealed. CBP began providing documents to lawmakers in February, after President Joe Biden took office, the report said.
The committee faulted CBP for not having a strong enough social media policy or doing enough to make its employees aware of it. But its main criticism concerned the agency’s decision to dole out lighter discipline than what was recommended by its discipline review board. The agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility conducted the investigations, the review board made recommendations and a “deciding official” — in this case, a longtime Border Patrol agent — made the final decisions on punishment.
According to the report, of the 60 employees that the Office of Professional Responsibility determined acted with misconduct, two were fired; more than 40 were suspended without pay; 12 got letters of reprimand; and three were given other punishments, such as suspension with pay.
The Department of Homeland Security said four employees were fired, but two were returned to duty after arbitration. It also said 62 of the allegations were found to be unsubstantiated.
In one case, the discipline review board recommended firing a Border Patrol supervisor who posted a CBP video of a migrant falling off a cliff and dying on the group’s Facebook page, as well as an obscene comment about a lawmaker. But in the end, the punishment was a 30-day suspension. Other punishments were reduced after an arbitration process.
The agency’s failure to quickly discipline employees after senior leaders became aware of the Facebook group, its lack of specific disciplinary guidelines and the inconsistent punishments it applied all weakened CBP’s ability to hold agents accountable for misconduct, the report found.
“It is unacceptable that the vast majority of these agents faced reduced punishment and were allowed to continue working with migrants,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “The late Chairman Cummings would often remind us at moments like these that ‘we are better than this!’” Jeffries was referring to Rep. Elijah Cummings, who led the committee when it first began investigating the Facebook group. Cummings, D-Md., died in October 2019.
It was not immediately clear if the investigation into the treatment of migrants in Del Rio last month would be conducted the same way, with the review board recommending certain disciplinary measures and a “deciding official.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general conducted a separate investigation into whether senior agency officials were aware of how many employees were part of the Facebook group and found that they generally were not. But the internal watchdog said CBP leaders did nothing to prevent something similar from happening in the future until the department directed them to.