Racist Facebook posts point to cultural problems inside the Border Patrol

(Briana Sanchez | El Paso Times | AP) U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, is escorted back to her vehicle after she speaks at the Border Patrol station in Clint about what she saw at area border facilities Monday, July 1, at the station in Clint.

Something is rotten in the Border Patrol, but is it a few bad apples or has a fungal disease infected the whole orchard?

That’s the nub of a debate between the union that represents border agents and a dozen Democratic lawmakers who visited migrant detention centers in Texas on Monday, triggered by a ProPublica story about racist and sexist posts on a private Facebook group that purports to be for current and former agents.

On a post about a 16-year-old migrant who died in Border Patrol custody, group members reportedly responded with crass comments such as, "Oh well," and "If he dies, he dies." In another thread, a member of the group posted a photo of the father and his 23-month-old daughter who drowned last week while trying to ford the Rio Grande to enter the United States. A commenter asked if the photo could have been faked because the bodies looked so "clean."

"I HAVE NEVER SEEN FLOATERS LIKE THIS," the person wrote, according to ProPublica, adding, "could this be another edited photo. We've all seen the dems and liberal parties do some pretty sick things. . ."

Some of the memes shared on the group's page include a photo illustration that depicts Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., being forced to give oral sex to President Donald Trump. Another depicts her giving oral sex at a detention center for immigrants, according to ProPublica. One commenter suggested starting a fundraising campaign to support any agent who would agree to throw burritos at Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, when they toured immigration facilities with a congressional delegation.

"When we talk about agencies that are rotted to the core, THIS is what we mean," tweeted Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., with a link to the story. "[Customs and Border Patrol] officers are charged with the care & custody of babies and families who they degrade and dehumanize."

The National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents the vast majority of border agents, "strongly condemned" the "inappropriate" posts and said they're "not representative of our employees, the overwhelming majority of whom perform their duties honorably."A statement from the group said union representatives have previously warned agents during membership meetings that they need to be professional while on social media because posting material like this "does great harm to the reputation of the Border Patrol," suggesting that this has been a problem on the union's radar for a while.

"ProPublica cited a handful of people who posted inappropriate content out of 9,500 members of the Facebook group, not all of whom are active duty Border Patrol agents," the statement said. "While one person posting inappropriate content is unacceptable and cannot be condoned, there is bound to be a subset of people whose values do not represent the entirety of those in the larger group. The men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol are by and large professional law enforcement officers who only want to do their job. To have a small minority of Facebook group members tarnish that image is unfortunate and embarrassing. . . . There are many instances, both told and untold, of agents going above and beyond to care for those in our custody, both humanely and compassionately."

The union concluded its statement by knocking Ocasio-Cortez for her recent comments. "Whether one agrees with the politics of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Escobar, they both must be treated with dignity and respect," the statement said. "Similarly, when Rep. Ocasio-Cortez refers to CBP facilities as concentration camps and our agents as Nazis — when neither could be further from the truth — she does nothing to improve the political discourse."

"This isn't about 'a few bad eggs.' This is a violent culture," Ocasio-Cortez responded on Twitter. "There are 20,000 TOTAL Customs & Border Patrol agents in the U.S. 9,500 — almost HALF that number — are in a racist & sexually violent . . . Facebook group. They're threatening violence on members of Congress. How do you think they're treating caged children + families?"

Top officials at CBP said the posts would constitute a clear violation of the agency's standards of conduct if they are indeed from agents. The agency announced that the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general was informed immediately, and an internal investigation has been initiated. "These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see-and expect-from our agents day in and day out," said Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost. "Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable."

The Washington Post was not able to independently confirm the existence of the group, called "I'm 10-15," after the law enforcement code for "aliens in custody," as the group is not visible to people who aren't members.

Escobar said it's still troubling if it turns out that many current Border Patrol members and supervisors belong to the group and have tolerated the rhetoric on display there, even if they never posted anything themselves. "Anyone who views vulnerable human lives in this way should have absolutely no access to a badge or a gun," said Escobar, who holds the El Paso-area House seat that Beto O'Rourke gave up when he ran for Senate.

Trump himself said he did not know anything about the Facebook posts when he was asked about the story in the Oval Office on Monday. Then he praised Border Patrol agents. “I don’t know what they’re saying about members of Congress,” the president told reporters who had assembled to watch him sign the bill that passed Congress last week to appropriate $4.6 billion in emergency aid for the border. “I know that the Border Patrol is not happy with the Democrats in Congress. . . . The Border Patrol, they’re patriots. They’re great people. They love our country. They know what’s coming in.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which hosted the day trip to the border, said the Facebook posts show that the larger system is broken. “There are many good agents — men and women working earnestly to care for the people in their custody,” he said. “But they are overwhelmed in a system that is morally bankrupt and challenged by rogue agents whose culture was on full display in the Facebook group.”

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who did not travel to the border but pledged a probe of the secret Facebook group, said those who participated "seem empowered by President Trump and seem all too willing to take his anti-immigrant rhetoric to the next level when they think no one is watching." He said agents behind the offensive posts should be terminated.

Democrats are also quick to note that this is not an isolated incident. Border Patrol agent Matthew Bowen is facing a trial next month for allegedly driving his government-issued Ford F-150 into a 23-year-old Guatemalan man named Antolin Lopez Aguilar, who had jumped the border fence in Arizona, on purpose. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of deprivation of rights under color of law and falsification of records in a federal investigation. An 11-year veteran of the Border Patrol, Bowen has been on indefinite leave without pay since charges were filed against him in May 2018.

Bowen's lawyer made a motion this spring to suppress text messages his client sent to other Border Patrol agents because he thinks they will prejudice a jury and prevent his client from getting a fair trial if they're introduced as evidence. A seven-page list of the texts he wants to withhold is divided into categories like "messages that could be perceived as racist or offensive" and another that reflect his pro-Trump political beliefs.

Bowen referred to illegal immigrants as "mindless murdering savages" in one of those texts and added: "PLEASE let us take the gloves off trump! . . . [They are] disgusting subhuman s--- unworthy of being kindling in a fire." Bowen texted that to a fellow Border Patrol agent in November 2017 who was facing criminal charges for shooting an unarmed Mexican teenager through the border fence. He would later be acquitted. The incident Bowen faces charges for happened just two weeks later.

In another text, a fellow Border Patrol agent asked Bowen: "Did you gas his corpse [sic] or just use regular peanut oil while tazing?? For a frying effect." Bowen responded: "Guats are best made crispy, with olive oil from their native pais." Guats is a reference to Guatemalans, the Arizona Daily Star of Tucson notes.

"Bowen's views are hardly extraordinary, argued his attorney, Sean Chapman. Rather, his sentiments are 'commonplace throughout the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector,' Chapman wrote, adding that such messages are 'part of the agency's culture,'"Tim Elfrink reported in May. "Chapman later clarified in an email to The Washington Post that he intended that argument only to apply to one particular term Bowen regularly used in texts: 'tonk,' which some agents claim is an innocent acronym, the Arizona Republic reported, and others say is a slur derived from the sound of hitting an immigrant on the head with a flashlight."

"How Mr. Bowen referred to aliens in specific text[s] does not aid the jury in determining whether he, on this occasion, set out to use excessive force to apprehend the alleged victim," his attorney said.

The Democratic lawmakers who went to Texas yesterday visited Border Patrol stations in El Paso and Clint, as well as a facility in El Paso for children operated by the Department of Health and Human Services. "During Monday's visit to Clint, lawmakers saw only about two dozen migrant children being held there, down from about 700 in May. Members expressed more pointed concerns about the El Paso facility, where they said several hundred people are still detained," The Washington Post reported.

“As the furor over the Facebook posts mounted, Trump supporters gathered outside the Clint detention center while the Democrats were inside. At a news conference afterward, the lawmakers struggled to be heard as protesters shouted them down. 'Build a wall; deport ‘em all,’ one shouted. ‘That’s the way we get rid of this problem!’ When Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., one of three Muslim members of Congress, stood at the event, a protester shouted: ‘We care about Jesus Christ. We don’t care about Sharia law.’ ‘I will outlove your hate,’ Tlaib replied, choked with emotion. ‘You can all scream at me. I will never stop speaking truth to power.’”