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Border agency fires 4 for secret Facebook groups with violent, bigoted posts

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection patch on an agent's uniform
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, parent agency of the Border Patrol, has removed four employees, suspended 38 without pay and otherwise disciplined 27.
(File photo)

The largest federal law enforcement agency has fired four employees for their participation in secretive social media groups that have featured violent, sexist and racist posts against migrants and members of Congress, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

More than a year after launching an internal investigation into 138 employees for “inappropriate social media activity,” Customs and Border Protection — the parent agency of the Border Patrol — has removed four employees, suspended 38 without pay and disciplined an additional 27 “with reprimands or counseling,” according to data provided to The Times by the agency.

Investigators from Customs and Border Protection‘s Office of Professional Responsibility determined that 63 of the cases — roughly half — were “unsubstantiated.” Six cases remain open, and the Homeland Security Department‘s inspector general is also investigating.

Last July, the office began looking into more than 60 current employees and eight former staff following reports of a secret Facebook group in which members used dehumanizing and derogatory language regarding Latina members of Congress and deceased migrants.

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The existence of the group, known as “I’m 10-15,” the code used by Border Patrol for migrants in custody, was first reported by ProPublica, and at one point had 9,500 members. The group’s vulgar posts included an illustration of Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being sexually assaulted by President Trump and others that mocked migrants who drowned in the Rio Grande.

Ocasio-Cortez did not immediately provide comment.

The probe, which is not criminal, ultimately doubled the number of individuals under investigation, and included several additional private social media groups.

Most of the cases deemed unsubstantiated involved personnel who reported themselves or others as part of the groups and provided information to investigators, but whose history showed they’d never posted or been active in them, an agency spokesperson said Thursday, declining to be named.

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Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who said on Twitter she was “one of the Latina members of Congress targeted by the hateful attacks,” but had not received information about the investigation from Customs and Border Protection, added that the investigation should include why the posts weren’t reported by the group’s members.

“This secret FB page mocked the deaths of migrants,” Escobar said, “vulnerable people dehumanized by a broken system.”

At the start of the investigation, Matthew Klein, assistant commissioner of the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility, emphasized that the privacy of the social media groups does not protect current or former employees from disciplinary action.

It’s far from the first investigation into offensive social media posts by Border Patrol agents or Customs and Border Protection officers. As of the beginning of the investigation, since January 2016, the office had investigated 80 individuals for inappropriate posts in at least three social media groups, Klein said at the time.

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Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said Thursday that the four firings were “a step in the right direction to demonstrate that federal law enforcement agents cannot act with impunity.” But he added that the lawmakers would be requesting more information “on why so few individuals were terminated and held fully accountable.”

“For far too long, there has been a rancid culture and systemic problems within Customs and Border Protection,” Castro said in a statement.

The agency spokesperson said Thursday that the initial results of the investigation have been shared with Congress.

“Customs and Border Protection addresses misconduct that violates our standards of conduct and is contrary to our core values of vigilance, service to country, and integrity,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

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House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), whose panel has not yet received a report, said he was “glad” the agency was holding employees accountable “for abhorrently racist and sexist social media posts.”

But, he added, “We still need to know how the agency is addressing its systemic cultural problems which have clearly been exacerbated by President Trump’s extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric.”


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