Seventy current and former Customs and Border Protection personnel are under investigation as part of an administrative probe into a secret Facebook group in which members used dehumanizing and derogatory language toward Latina members of Congress and deceased migrants.
On Monday, officials for the first time provided details of the recently launched federal investigation into the 9,500-member group, known as “I’m 10-15,” the code used by Border Patrol for migrants in custody.
The probe was spurred by a ProPublica report that revealed the existence of the group and its vulgar posts, including an illustration of Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being sexually assaulted by President Trump. Other posts mocked migrants who drowned in the Rio Grande.
On Monday, Matthew Klein, assistant commissioner of the Office of Professional Responsibility at Customs and Border Protection, told reporters that his office is looking at 62 current employees and eight former staff. The probe also covers two additional private social media groups.
Officials emphasized that individuals could be subject to disciplinary action even if they were part of the groups and did not participate in their illicit activity, or if they were aware of the group’s existence and did not report it.
“Every employee within CBP is required to report allegations of misconduct,” said Michele James, deputy assistant commissioner of the office. “Failing to report is in and of itself misconduct.”
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said earlier this month that several Customs and Border Protection employees have been placed on administrative leave.
Investigators have asked Facebook to preserve the groups’ posts and are continuing to link the names of those posting offensive material, or those who are tagged or mentioned, to current or former employees, Klein said.
The number of employees investigated is expected to grow, Klein said.
Investigators noted that the inquiry is not criminal and emphasized that the privacy of the social media groups does not protect current or former employees from disciplinary action.
“The expectation of professional conduct doesn’t end at the end of the shift,” Klein said. “Posts that are discriminatory or harassing are not protected and could violate CBP standards of conduct.”
The current investigation is far from the first into offensive posts on closed social media groups for Border Patrol agents or Customs and Border Protection officers. Since January 2016, the office has investigated 80 individuals for inappropriate posts on social media, in at least three different groups, Klein said.
Customs and Border Protection did not provide data on prior years or the results of the earlier investigations.
As the investigation grows, so does the fallout for the already-embattled Homeland Security Department. Several of the published posts from the groups under investigation mock members of Congress who’ve visited detention centers and processing sites run by Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol and witnessed deplorable conditions for migrants held there, including children.
McAleenan has called the social media activity “disturbing and inexcusable” and “completely unacceptable,” but lawmakers have suggested the department needs new leadership.
The third-largest federal department currently has some dozen vacancies in its top posts following a purge Trump kicked off in April, saying he wanted to go in a “tougher” direction.
“It is clear these federal law enforcement officials 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,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement July 1.
“The chaos within DHS needs to end and proper leadership needs to be put in place.”
The Homeland Security inspector general’s office, the independent watchdog for the department, first declined to investigate, referring the case back to Custom and Border Protection’s internal affairs office.
Officials declined to comment on whether the employees under investigation have been suspended for the course of the probe, or the potential disciplinary action, citing the investigators’ mandate for fact-finding only. If allegations are substantiated, disciplinary action is determined separately, often on a case-by-case basis, by management.
Factors such as whether an employee has previously engaged in misconduct or whether it has a direct tie to their work are considered, and discipline can include a written reprimand, unpaid suspension from work, demotion or removal, according to Customs and Border Protection.
Before any kind of disciplinary action, an employee is entitled to advanced written notice stating the reason, a “reasonable” amount of time to respond, the underlying materials that are the basis for the discipline, and representation by an attorney or union representative, James said.
Officials also declined to detail the geographic location or rank of personnel under investigation, citing the integrity of the probe, and would not comment on reports that have linked Border Patrol head Carla Provost to the group.
In a July 1 statement responding to the initial reporting about the groups, Provost called the posts “completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see — and expect — from our agents day in and day out” and said any employees found to violate the agency’s standards would be held accountable.
“Regardless of one’s rank within the organization,” James said, “we’re responsible for conducting a fair, impartial investigation.”