The killing of Claudia Patricia Gómez González on May 23 by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent has sparked outrage across the United States. Gómez Gonzalez, a 20-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, embodied the aspirations of so many who come to this country: Trained as a forensic accountant, she left her homeland because she wanted to keep studying. With no way to earn the money to further her education at home, she traveled north to earn a living and reunite with her boyfriend in Virginia. Her dreams were met with a bullet in the head.
Americans are right to be horrified by the murder at the hands of a federal border agent and to demand justice for Ms. Gómez Gonzalez’s family. But, as the horror seeps in, we must also realize that this is not just a case of a rogue agent; rather, it is the latest killing by a rogue agency whose abuses must be stopped.
CBP has a harrowing history of lethal violence. A recent investigation by The Guardian found that, since 2003, CBP agents have killed 97 people. While the causes of death span a wide range—from being run over by agents’ cars to being killed by tasers or beatings—the majority of killings were from bullet wounds, in many cases from shots to the back. Of the 97 people killed by CBP in this timespan, at least six were children.
Nor is CBP violence limited to immigrants crossing the southern border. No fewer than 28 of those killed were US citizens. And, while most of the CBP killings recorded by The Guardian occurred in Texas, Arizona, and California, CBP agents also operate with impunity along the northern border. Since 2003, CBP agents have killed people in Maine, Michigan, Montana, New York, and Washington State.
CBP has paid $9 million to settle some of these cases, but the agency’s primary strategy in cases of deadly force seems to be to cover up its agents’ brutality. In the case of Gómez González, the agency first argued that its agent had “fatally wounded one of the assailants” who attacked him with “two-by-four pieces of lumber.” An eyewitness, Marta Martínez, took cell-phone video of the aftermath and later observed that there were no two-by-fours in the area. The agency changed its story to claim the agent fired his gun after being “rushed” by the group with which Gómez González was traveling.
There is no reason to believe that CBP will hold the agent, or the agency itself, accountable in this case. To justify deadly force, CBP routinely claims that victims of its violence attacked agents—for instance, alleging they have thrown rocks or other objects. Indeed, as The Guardian analysis found, in all 17 of the reports on significant incidents of use of force that were made public after review by CBP’s National Use of Force Review Board, the “use of force [was found] to be compliant with agency policy in effect at the time.” At the same time, a report by the Police Executive Research Forum, which is overseen by a board of police chiefs, found many cases of CBP agents’ intentionally putting themselves in harm’s way to justify responding with bullets.
CBP’s culture of impunity extends further. As Americans are awakening to the news that children are being separated from their parents at the border, we must also heed the findings of a recent American Civil Liberties Union report that reviewed 30,000 pages of federal records and found evidence of “rampant abuse” of unaccompanied minors by CBP, including threats of rape and children “being stomped on, punched, kicked, run over with vehicles, tased, and forced to maintain stress positions by CBP officials.” Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) oversight entities, unsurprisingly, have dismissed the findings.
In this context of zero accountability, it’s no wonder that CBP and DHS also have a massive corruption problem. In December 2016, a New York Times investigation found evidence over 10 years of nearly 200 DHS employees and contract workers taking nearly $15 million in bribes. A separate report found that “[s]ince 2016, there have been 40 cases of corruption-related charges against CBP employees, including 13 since Trump took office.”
Simply put, CBP is a rogue agency. Its modus operandi is to brutalize and extort immigrants, as well as US citizens, with whom its agents come into contact—and to then sweep these abuses under the rug.
Nor is this merely a problem of the Trump era. Systemic abuse and corruption at CBP existed during the Bush and Obama eras, as well. During the Obama administration, far too little was done to address the problem, although the administration did convene a “CBP Integrity Advisory Panel” that concluded that corruption and lack of accountability remained serious problems.
It’s clear from CBP’s extensive record of killing, abusing, and stealing—and its failure to ever hold itself accountable—cannot be expected to fix itself. A complete overhaul is needed.
And yet, who will take charge of this? An overhaul—let alone a complete one—is unlikely to come from the current administration, which has spent the last 16 months egging on this abusive, corrupt agency. Indeed, upon taking office, Donald Trump immediately called for funding for 5,000 more border agents, while reducing hiring standards, including the requirement that all agents take polygraph tests (a test that that nearly two-thirds of applicants currently fail, according to an Associated Press investigation). After these efforts faltered, in early 2018 Trump proposed a 22 percent increase to CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to, among other things, hire 750 more Border Patrol officers and 2,000 additional ICE agents.
At the same time, the Trump administration has worked relentlessly to vilify and expel immigrants—by terminating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for Dreamers, ending Temporary Protected Status for those who fled war-torn and disaster-stricken countries, and adopting a policy to separate children from their parents at the border. These actions, too, have helped seed the ground for CBP abuses.
In the face of such government-sanctioned impunity, progressives and Democrats must act. They can, and must, use upcoming federal budget negotiations, in which Democrats have leverage even in the minority, to reject any new funding for CBP and to insist on increased transparency and accountability.
More specifically, while also drawing a line in the sand against Trump’s bigotry-infused border wall, congressional Democrats should refuse outright any proposal that increases funding to CBP, especially for the hiring of new Border Patrol agents. And they should insist not just on body cameras for all CBP agents, but also for more oversight investigators, the collection of data on all CBP stops, and the curtailing of warrantless search powers for CBP agents.
Claudia Gómez González and her family deserve justice. So too do the 97 other people killed by CBP since 2003. With a radical overhaul out of reach for now, we must begin by forcefully rejecting Trump’s effort to expand this out-of-control agency and insist on transparency and accountability.