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According to the U.S. government, tens of thousands of Central American and Mexican children travel alone to the United States every year to escape violence and poverty in their home countries. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a sub-agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), detains many of these children when they arrive at U.S. ports of entry or cross the U.S. border. While in CBP custody, immigrant children have reported physical and psychological abuse, unsanitary and inhumane living conditions, isolation from family members, extended periods of detention, and denial of access to legal and medical services.

In 2014, legal service providers and immigrants’ rights advocates observed a sharp increase in complaints of abuse and neglect from children in CBP custody. In June 2014, several of these organizations submitted an administrative complaint to two DHS oversight agencies, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), documenting CBP’s mistreatment of 116 unaccompanied children aged five to seventeen. One quarter of the children reported physical abuse, including sexual assault, the use of stress positions, and beatings by Border Patrol agents. More than half reported verbal abuse, including death threats. More than half also reported denial of necessary medical care—resulting, at times, in hospitalization. Eighty percent reported inadequate food and water.

Despite initial promises that DHS would thoroughly investigate these allegations, and notwithstanding an acknowledgment of “recurring problems” in CBP detention facilities, DHS OIG announced in October 2014 that routine inspections of detention facilities would be curtailed. In December 2014, the ACLU’s Border Litigation Project—a joint project of the ACLU affiliates in Arizona and San Diego—filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking records related to abuse of children in CBP custody. When the request was ignored, the ACLU, along with Cooley LLP, filed a FOIA lawsuit in federal court to compel release of the records sought.

After many months of additional delays and the imposition of court-ordered deadlines, various DHS subcomponent agencies finally began to produce responsive records. Since 2015, the ACLU has obtained over 30,000 pages of records related to abuse of children in CBP custody. These records document a pattern of intimidation, harassment, physical abuse, refusal of medical services, and improper deportation between 2009 and 2014. These records also reveal the absence of meaningful internal or external agency oversight and accountability. The federal government has failed to provide adequate safeguards and humane detention conditions for children in CBP custody. It has further failed to institute effective accountability mechanisms for government officers who abuse the vulnerable children entrusted to their care. These failures have allowed a culture of impunity to flourish within CBP, subjecting immigrant children to conditions that are too often neglectful at best and sadistic at worst. This report serves as a companion to a subset of the records obtained by the ACLU—specifically, those released by DHS CRCL (“the CRCL documents”)— and highlights the most prevalent types of CBP child abuse documented therein.

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