Despite some encouraging signals on immigration reform from the White House, widespread human rights abuses continue on both the northern and southern borders.
Immigration reform advocates across the country want to meet with Alan Bersin, national commander of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. That meeting should happen soon if the Obama administration is serious about adopting more practical and humane policies. U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, is among lawmakers calling for Bersin to meet with community members.
In a new report called "A Culture of Cruelty," the Arizona-based advocacy group No More Deaths details thousands of abuses by U.S. Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexican border -- many in violation of the department's own rules -- including withholding food and water from detainees, beatings and failure to provide needed medical treatment.
The report is based on interviews with nearly 13,000 people in three Mexican border towns, conducted from late 2008 until the spring of this year, immediately after illegal immigrants were deported from Arizona. Among the findings: Only 20% of people in custody for more than two days said they had received a meal, and 86% were deported without necessary medical care.
Calling for independent oversight of U.S. immigration practices and policies, the report concluded that abuses were systemic -- part of the Border Patrol's culture -- rather than the result of aberrant behavior by a few bad agents.
"There's a real lack of accountability and a general disregard for human rights by the U.S. Border Patrol," said Charlie Rooney, a Detroit-area human rights activist who also lives in Tucson, where he is active with No More Deaths.
Human rights violations are not limited to the Southwest. Racial and religious profiling, harassment, abusive interrogation, searches without probable cause, sweeps of public transit (especially on trains and buses in New York), and inadequate medical care of detainees have become common along the northern border as well.
Ryan Bates, director of the Alliance for Immigrants Rights & Reform Michigan, cited numerous recent incidents in the Detroit area, including a July 25 detention by border patrol agents on the grounds of St. Anne's Church in southwest Detroit during mass. Agents released the man after an hour.
Many residents -- legal and illegal -- live in fear of harassment. The federal government deported a record 392,000 people last year. When abuses occur -- especially when U.S. agents violate their own policies -- internal investigations should not close the books. Such cases need the scrutiny of an outside agency, such as the U.S. Department of Justice.
Moreover, reform advocates want to see border patrol agents given the same sort of training and scrutiny other police agencies undergo, including in-car cameras. They also want schools and churches off-limits to agents seeking to interrogate people. El Paso has already adopted such a policy.
A meeting between Bersin and immigration advocates won't resolve all these issues, but it could help the U.S. make sensible and informed changes in policy, while improving relations with all immigrant communities.
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