Ten Senate and House committee and subcommittee chairs on Monday called for an investigation into the secretive, shadow police units that have for years worked to cover up abuses by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. Two of these committee chairs, House Oversight and Reform’s Carolyn Maloney and Homeland Security’s Bennie Thompson, separately said they’re also conducting their own joint probe into the units.
The announcements by bicameral lawmakers mark a monumental victory for the borderland organizations and human rights advocates who have been demanding justice and accountability on behalf of victims like Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, whose brutal murder at the hands of border agents in 2010 was covered up by one of these units.
“Congress has not provided CBP specific authority to conduct investigations of its agents’ misconduct, and the CBP Commissioner has not publicly delegated this authority to Border Patrol,” bicameral lawmakers tell GAO Comptroller Gene Dodaro in a Jan. 24 letter. “Despite the apparent lack of authority to investigate agent misconduct, the CBP appears to have created Critical Incident Teams to investigate and collect evidence following incidents that may create criminal or civil liability, including allegations of excessive use of force.”
The Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) noted in its letter to lawmakers last year how Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams (BPCITs) have operated as unaccountable “shadow police units” working in tandem with one ultimate goal in mind: protecting abusive agents. This has continued in the years since Hernandez Rojas’ killing.
In recent weeks, officials said that one of these units would investigate a Border Patrol car chase where a number of civilians were killed. Twenty-two people have died as a result of Border Patrol’s reckless, high-speed chases in 2021, including one passenger who was ejected from a vehicle on Christmas Day. For comparison, there were just two deaths in 2019. The federal government has paid $60 million in settlements for incidents involving border agents spanning over a decade, the vast majority of them involving vehicle-related incidents, The Guardian reported in 2018. Yet there has been little accountability when it comes to agents themselves.
“We applaud the ten congressional oversight committees and subcommittees that have signed onto this letter to the GAO requesting an investigation,” said SBCC Director Vicki B. Gaubeca. “Border Patrol cannot and should not investigate itself. We urge GAO investigators to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation of these shadow units to ensure our border communities are no longer harmed and that the families who have lost a loved one can have closure.”
“Our Committees are seeking to more fully understand the role of Critical Incident Teams following potential misconduct by Border Patrol agents, whether these teams have obstructed criminal, civil, or administrative investigations or prevented accountability for agents’ misconduct, and the steps CBP is taking to ensure these teams are being used appropriately,” Maloney and Thompson said.
Legislators named in the letter to Dodaro are Sens. Dick Durbin, Alex Padilla, Gary Peters, and Kyrsten Sinema, and Reps. Nanette Barragán, Zoe Lofgren, Jerry Nadler, and Jamie Raskin. While Padilla directly confronted Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on these units during a November hearing, he offered nothing of substance in response. These committees must use every tool at their disposal in the name of accountability.
“We are hopeful that the GAO and Congress can move in tandem to investigate the abuse and cover-up by Border Patrol Critical Investigation Teams,” said SBCC co-chair Lilian Serrano. “There are real people, real families and whole communities that are under continuous threat for their safety as long as these units can operate without accountability and oversight. The case of Anastasio Hernández Rojas in San Diego reminds us that none of us is safe as long as these units exist.”