Border agents in Facebook groups with bigoted posts saw little discipline
Most of the Customs and Border Protection agents who participated in secretive social media groups featuring violent, bigoted posts against migrants and members of Congress received significantly watered down discipline measures, according to a report released Monday by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Agency officials launched an internal investigation into 135 employees for “inappropriate social media activity” and determined that 60 agents who participated in the groups were subject to discipline. Among those, two were fired, 43 were suspended without pay, 12 received letters of reprimand, and three were issued alternative disciplinary actions, such as a suspension with pay, the report stated.
Ten other employees retired before a final misconduct determination was made. Eleven employees not subject to discipline received other “non-disciplinary actions,” according to the report, such as letters of caution.
In response to the incidents in the report, senior leadership of Customs and Border Protection called for the development of annual social media training.
“CBP will not tolerate hateful, misogynist, or racist behavior,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Malin. “CBP is working to review policies and to underscore the need to respect the dignity of every individual, fight against discrimination, safeguard civil rights and civil liberties, and increase transparency and accountability.”
The report contains findings from an investigation launched in 2019 by the Committee on Oversight and Reform after media reports about a secret Facebook group in which members of the agency used dehumanizing and derogatory language toward Latina members of Congress and deceased migrants. The most prominent Facebook group, known as “I’m 10-15” — the code used by Border Patrol for migrants in custody — was first reported on by ProPublica, and once had 9,500 members.
CBP, which oversees Border Patrol, began producing unredacted documents in February after the Trump administration obstructed the investigation for more than a year, the report states.
Documents obtained by the committee showed the agency was aware of agents posting racist and sexist content on Facebook three years before they were publicized in news outlets.
Documents also showed two high-ranking CBP officials were members of “I’m 10-15” and took no action to address offensive content posted to the group by CBP agents. Carla Provost was Border Patrol chief from August 2018 until January 2020. Rodney Scott served as chief patrol agent in San Diego before eventually becoming Border Patrol chief from February 2020 to August.
Both Provost and Scott said they were in the group to gauge the thoughts of rank and file employees. Scott reported seeing questionable content on two occasions but did not think those incidents rose to the level of reportable misconduct, according to the report. Multiple employees who were investigated said that the participation of Provost, Scott and other senior managers made them think that CBP leadership was aware of and OK with the nature of the posts.
All but one of the agents who committed misconduct and were not fired, including those who made degrading and threatening comments about migrants, were allowed to continue working with migrants, according to the report.
After investigating “inappropriate” social media use, Customs and Border Protection fires four employees, suspends 38 without pay and disciplines 27.
Despite 24 removals having been proposed by the CBP Discipline Review Board, the agency ultimately removed just two employees, according to the report. Most of those removals were reduced to suspensions without pay. One was reduced to a letter of reprimand and one other became an “oral admonishment.” Two agents retired shortly after the review board proposed their removal.
Among the 43 agents who were suspended without pay, all but two received suspensions of up to 30 days — most were suspended for five days or fewer, according to the report. Two other agents had their recommended removals mitigated by arbitrators to a suspension of 60 days and time served.
The National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents agents, has invoked arbitration on behalf of 10 agents who appealed their disciplinary decisions, according to the report. Seven appeals remain ongoing.
CBP provided The Times with some slightly different figures than the House report, maintaining that four people, not 10, retired, two of them before disciplinary action was proposed. The other two faced reprimands or counseling, according to the agency. While the report stated that allegations of misconduct were unsubstantiated for 54 other employees, the agency says that number was 62.
Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney said in a statement that she was deeply troubled by the findings.
“CBP’s failure to prevent these violent and offensive statements by its own agents or impose adequate discipline creates a serious risk that this behavior will continue,” she said. “CBP must take immediate steps to reform its disciplinary processes, strengthen social media policies and training, and address long-standing issues of poor morale within its ranks.”
According to the report, Facebook refused to provide CBP investigators with content from “I’m 10-15,” forcing them to obtain screenshots from third-party sources, including news outlets. Facebook also failed to remove content in the group that violated its community standards. An arbitrator in one agent’s case pointed to Facebook’s long-standing knowledge, finding that the page “was not secret to Facebook, which enabled obscene, harassing, and disruptive behavior,” the report states.
The House committee found that CBP officials had wide discretion to determine disciplinary actions and that penalties for similar offenses were inconsistent. Arbitrators then used the inconsistencies as a basis for reducing penalties, the report stated.
Among examples cited in the report were a Border Patrol agent in Arizona who posted an internal video of a migrant falling off a cliff to his death having his discipline reduced from removal to a 30-day suspension. Another agent with multiple infractions was allowed to retire with disability benefits rather than face removal after posting a photo of a drowned migrant father and child, referring to them as “floaters” and suggesting the photo was edited by “dems and liberals” because the deceased looked too “clean.”
One of the two agents, who was ultimately fired, was stationed in California and had 20 years’ experience. The agent was removed from the “I am 10-15” page for posting offensive content but was later allowed back in. Afterward, he posted a doctored image of a member of Congress being raped by President Trump.
Another agent in California with 10 years’ experience posted a comment that “these children arent [sic] going to separate themselves.” After a proposed three-day suspension, he received a one-day suspension.
Agents told CBP investigators that they used the “I’m 10-15” Facebook group to vent their job dissatisfaction and other frustrations with the agency. Those charged with misconduct expressed confusion around the agency’s social media guidelines.
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