In line with its “enforcement only” approach to immigration, the Obama administration has increased the number of border patrol agents, most recently as part of a $600 million border bill that passed without much ado this summer. But the rapid expansion appears to have come at a cost. The Los Angeles Times reports that there’s been a surge in sexual misconduct and assault cases against Border Patrol agents—a development that some attribute to the increased militarization of the border and greater numbers of inexperienced officers.
In the last 18 months, writes the Times, “five Border Patrol agents have been accused or convicted of sex crimes, including one agent who pleaded guilty in January to raping a woman while off duty, and another who is accused of sexually assaulting a migrant while her young children were nearby in a car.” Other Border Patrol agents have been charged in assault cases, including charges of torturing a 16-year-old drug smuggler, paralyzing a man with a hatchet in an attempted murder, and shocking, drugging, and Tasering an immigrant detainee to death while he was being deported to Mexico. “They see themselves as a quasi-military body defending the country,” one political scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso tells the Times reporter. “Add to that the fact that they are expanding rapidly, and you have thousands of rookies who have very little experience.”
The story also points out that the Border Patrol is the second largest police agency in the country after the New York City Police Department, having grown by 9,000 agents from 2005 to 2009 and currently employing 21,000. But there’s far less transparency than in most major police departments: unlike most big cities, Border Patrol does not reveal how often it uses force and under what circumstances. And there’s very little accountability, because “agents are loath to report peers and juries are reluctant to convict those standing guard along the country’s borders.”
Ramping up border enforcement may seem like an easy win for legislators in the current political climate. But there are clearly risks that need to be addressed as well, regardless of whether you think immigration to the US should become more restricted. The Obama administration has made a commitment to reforming the immigration detention system. That’s a start, but it seems clear that the White House also needs to demand greater transparency and accountability for Border Patrol—particularly as it’s pouring millions more into bolstering its ranks.