Your Donation Will Be Doubled. Support Today!

‘They treated me like a dog’: An Immigrant Was Forced to Clean the Truck of the Border Agent Who Arrested Him

Under ‘Operation Streamline,’ Border Patrol has become responsible for the housing and transporting of immigrants.

View of U.S.-Mexico border from San Diego, CAPhoto by Mario Tama / Getty Images

According to a declaration given to a federal public defender in San Diego, a Border Patrol agent made a detained Mexican immigrant clean the agent’s truck and then shut him inside it with the air conditioning at full blast as the shivering immigrant broke down in tears. When the immigrant said he was cold, the agent turned the heat all the way up and kept the car heated as they drove through a Southern California heat wave to federal court in downtown San Diego. The Mexican citizen, who says he had previously lived in the United States for 18 years, told his lawyer that the Border Patrol agent had announced to a fellow agent that he was “going to make this Mexican clean my truck,” and that after he was done cleaning the truck he felt “like a dog.”

The Mexican citizen, who has asked that we not reveal his name for fear of retaliation by Border Patrol, was arrested on the night of July 24, along with three other people two miles north of the border near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry. After being arrested, the border crossers were brought to a Border Patrol station where the Mexican citizen who made the declaration says an agent menaced them with a Taser, threatening to use it, and told them it was “funny to see someone get tased.”

Since July, many immigrants caught crossing the border have been kept longer in Border Patrol custody, as they await criminal prosecution in federal court under the Justice Department’s “zero tolerance” policy, which aims to prosecute as many border crossers as possible. Previously, the vast majority of Mexican immigrants apprehended were almost immediately sent back through a process known as “expedited removal” or through the reinstatement of a previous removal order. Now, with 32 percent of immigrants arrested after crossing the border being brought to federal court to face criminal charges under the expedited prosecution program known as “Operation Streamline,” Border Patrol has become responsible for the housing and transporting of immigrants who had previously been immediately removed or handed over to the U.S. Marshals or ICE for their confinement.

This means that Border Patrol is being pressed into the role of a jailer. Federal public defenders have repeatedly declared in court that this is a role for which the agency is ill-equipped. Border patrol agents often have immigrants sleep in overcrowded and freezing rooms, order that they take turns sleeping on mats, and provide them with limited food during their confinement. They have also repeatedly denied immigrants access to medications that they confiscated during arrests.

Michelle Angeles, an attorney at the Federal Defenders of San Diego, represented the Mexican immigrant who made the declaration, and says it’s unclear whether there has been an increase in instances of abuse by Border Patrol since the beginning of Operation Streamline.

What has changed, she says, is that because of their criminal prosecution in federal court, immigrants in Border Patrol custody are now being provided something they wouldn’t have during previous interactions with the agents: lawyers. It’s during the brief meetings with federal public defenders that stories of mistreatment have begun to come out.

“As I was leaving the station I heard the officer say to another officer ‘I am going to make this Mexican clean my truck,’” the Mexican immigrant told Angeles in Spanish.  “I heard the officer laugh and say, ‘Yeah, make him clean your truck.’ The agent then took me to his truck and told me to clean the truck. He made me pick up with my hands used cans, dirty towels, old gloves, rotten food, paper, and made [me] remove dirt and sand from the truck floor. He then told me to get in the truck and turned the air conditioning on high and left me alone for about 10 minutes. The truck was freezing cold. I was wearing only a thin T-shirt and pants. I got goosebumps and started shaking from the cold. As I sat in the truck I started crying. I was frustrated and emotional by the way I was treated. I lived in the United States for 18 years and I have never been treated this way. The agents have all this power and they abuse it to make us feel less. They laughed and mocked us. They treated me like a dog. I was humiliated.”

Angeles told The Appeal that while Border Patrol has policies in place for how they are supposed to treat people in confinement, there’s almost no way to monitor whether agents are following these policies or to hold officers accountable when they don’t follow the rules.

“It’s sort of the wild wild west. What happens under the scope of Border Patrol in these hills stays there. It’s our client’s word against theirs,” Angeles said. “I say that because even if there’s training, some of these agents feel empowered to abuse their authority and I don’t think that just applies to Border Patrol.” Angeles added that many of her clients have also complimented the agency l for its treatment while in custody.

Border Patrol says it has no record of any incidents during the timeframe this individual was in custody. “The Border Patrol stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission, and the overwhelming majority of Border Patrol employees and agents perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe,” Eduardo Olmos, a Border Patrol spokesperson told The Appeal. “We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks, and we fully cooperate with any criminal or administrative investigations of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, on or off duty.”

In the United States, there exist very few remedies for individuals who claim abuse by federal law enforcement agents outside of filing a civil rights lawsuit alleging the violation of an individual’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In the absence of meaningful oversight, Border Patrol agents have often acted with impunity toward a population that is not inclined to speak out, because of fear of retribution or worries that it would complicate their pending immigration cases. Last Tuesday, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark decision, ruling that a Border Patrol agent could be sued in federal civil court by the family of a Mexican teenager who was fatally shot on the Mexican side of the border fence in October 2012. The ruling further expanded  the context under which civil lawsuits against the agency could be filed and is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Last week, the Mexican citizen who gave the declaration was bailed out of federal custody, had his criminal charges dismissed, and consequently was removed to Mexico. Before his removal, he was held in Border Patrol custody for a few extra days after he had already agreed to an expedited removal. Federal defenders have filed motions documenting the issues with Border Patrol keeping people in detention for days after they have agreed to a removal, especially in the context of the ill treatment many that immigrants reported having received while in custody.

“They don’t treat us like humans,” the Mexican immigrant said, concluding his declaration. “They treat us like animals.”