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INS Agents Abuse Immigrants, Study Says : Law enforcement: Watchdog group claims Border Patrol officers beat illegal arrivals. Officials deny allegations and reject call for an independent review board.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

U.S. Border Patrol agents engage in “serious and systematic” abuse of illegal immigrants along the Mexican border, according to a study released today by an international human rights group known primarily as a watchdog against repressive Latin American governments.

In its first report on the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Americas Watch said routine abuse by INS agents--beatings, verbal mistreatment, inhumane detention facilities--compares to practices by nations regarded as serious human rights violators.

The report calls for an independent review board to investigate alleged human rights violations, asserting that an ongoing failure to punish misconduct amounts to a cover-up by the INS.

“The response of the U.S. government is as defensive and unyielding as the response of many of the most abusive governments,” the report concludes.

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An INS official in Washington dismissed the report as a “potpourri” of past charges by opponents of law enforcement and the INS.

“There is nothing new here,” said spokesman Vern Jervis. “It’s further evidence of an effort to deter law enforcement on immigration.”

Some of the Americas Watch allegations are not new. But Jervis acknowledged that they come from an internationally prominent source.

The credibility of some frequent INS critics has been questioned on occasion because they belong to migrant advocate groups whose ideology questions even the existence of the Border Patrol. In contrast, Americas Watch has generally stayed out of the acrimonious immigration debate.

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“Americas Watch has a very commendable record of documenting human rights abuses throughout the hemisphere,” said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. “Their reports have attracted great attention. . . . For that reason this report deserves very careful scrutiny and consideration. They have not been advocates on immigration.”

Cornelius said Mexican politicians and human rights groups, and some U.S. government officials outside the INS, have long complained that the agency violates human rights with apparent impunity.

Americas Watch was formed in 1981 as part of an international, nonprofit organization called Human Rights Watch, which grew out of an effort to monitor human rights in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1970s. It is funded by private contributors and foundations.

The study’s author, Ellen Lutz of the Americas Watch Los Angeles office, has written several reports on human rights abuses by Mexican police and prison officials that were followed by reforms.

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Lutz said her group undertook the 18-month study of INS practices in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas for two reasons: an interest in increasing scrutiny of human rights conditions in the United States and repeated requests by Mexican officials during her work in Mexico that she examine the treatment of illegal immigrants in U.S. border states.

Nonetheless, Lutz said: “This is not a report that calls for an open border. . . . We are not in any way trying to take away the law enforcement quality of INS. We are not challenging the legitimacy of the INS to have laws that regulate immigration. What we are focusing on in this case essentially is police abuse.”

Lutz said some abuses she found compare to other nations in severity rather than in scope. And she acknowledged that her work is based not on firsthand investigation but on information culled from various sources: private lawyers, federal public defenders and migrant advocate groups that, as Jervis pointed out, are vocal INS critics.

“They are contradicting themselves,” Jervis said. “Our job of investigating complaints is several hundred times more thorough than their job of investigating us.”

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Lutz said: “We are not simply adopting the views of these groups. They are the monitors, they are gathering the raw data.”

The data provides a dark picture of poor training, low morale and rogue conduct. The report alleges that agents have shot unarmed migrants, intimidated abuse victims by filing rarely used criminal charges of illegal entry, and referred disparagingly to illegal immigrants as tonks --the sound a flashlight makes when it hits someone on the head.

Unlike many other law enforcement agencies, the report said, the INS does not make public the names of agents involved in serious incidents or remove them from active duty pending investigation.

A worst-case scenario, Lutz said, involves Border Patrol agent Michael Lewis. The report documents Lewis’ record of misconduct allegations beginning in the early 1980s in Calexico, when he was given a 30-day unpaid suspension for throwing someone’s bicycle into a river.

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In 1983, Lewis was involved in two on-duty incidents in which his vehicle struck Mexican migrants; the second victim died instantly. According to Americas Watch, the CHP found that Lewis was speeding, but prosecutors did not file criminal charges.

In 1985, Lewis was sued for allegedly assaulting two farm workers, a man and a woman, who were legal U.S. residents. The lawsuits were settled in 1990 for $18,000, the report said.

And during a 1988 sweep of a neighborhood in the Northern California town of Madera, a 17-year-old illegal immigrant named Ismael Ramirez died after Lewis chased him through the streets and, according to witnesses, threw the 100-pound youth head first to the pavement.

After an investigation by the FBI, Office of Inspector General and local police, Lewis was transferred to Florida. A lawsuit filed by Ramirez’s family was settled this year for a “small amount of money,” Jervis said.

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Although Americas Watch said Lewis’ record illustrates an “outright refusal to punish agents,” the INS said that each incident was investigated and appropriate action taken.

Jervis said Lewis was punished in the case of the bicycle; that the accident victim was found to have been drunk and run into Lewis’ path, and that numerous agencies looked into Ramirez’s death. Jervis added that the INS apprehends more than 1 million people a year and receives only one complaint for every 17,000 arrests.

A central recommendation by Americas Watch is that the federal Office of Inspector General be removed from investigating misconduct allegations because it lacks credibility.

“The government is not taking any action, setting up complaint procedures or firing or disciplining agents in any serious way,” Lutz said.

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Noting that the ranks of investigators include former INS agents, the report calls for creation of an independent review board to investigate shootings and other cases where use of force is questioned.

Jervis was unable to provide statistics on the number of agents who have been fired or prosecuted for serious violations. But he said a review board is unnecessary.

“What would it bring to the system? I’m not aware of any board of review for any federal law enforcement agency. I know some local police have that, but it’s not very widespread,” he said.

The report also calls for an end to incarcerating INS detainees in city and county jails when federal detention space is unavailable. Lutz said it is unfair to house people whose only crime is illegal entry with hardened criminals.

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Americas Watch cited frustration and low morale in a perennially understaffed, overwhelmed agency as an underlying cause of INS misconduct. Although he was unfamiliar with the report, one Border Patrol agent who works in the busy San Diego sector agreed that the job breeds anger.

“There’s brutality,” said the agent, who asked not to be named. “An officer’s gonna get pissed off . . . Some nights you get out here and you are getting run over and run over, 200 and 300 people running by you, you get pissed.”


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