Immigrant rights advocates unveiled a two-year study Tuesday alleging continuing abuse of illegal immigrants and U.S citizens by the Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies in communities along the nation's southern border.
The Border Patrol and immigration control activists called the study unreliable and biased.
The report by the American Friends Service Committee, a human rights group, urged creation of a civilian review board for the Border Patrol of the type affiliated with some big-city police forces.
However, although the study characterized physical and verbal abuse in border communities as widespread, it showed a more than 50% drop in the number of alleged victims since a previous study.
Border Patrol officials said the border has become safer because U.S. and Mexican authorities have reduced crime and violence at the San Diego-Tijuana international line, which accounts for almost half the Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal immigrants nationwide.
"We don't think the American Friends Service Committee has shown itself to be a credible critic of the Border Patrol and the INS," Border Patrol spokesman Verne Jervis said in Washington, D.C. He said the Border Patrol made more than 2 million apprehensions during the period covered by the report.
The battle lines drawn Tuesday were familiar. The American Friends Service Committee--which is affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers--has been an outspoken critic of alleged Border Patrol misconduct for the past decade.
"The problem is widespread and it is serious," Roberto Martinez, director of the committee's Mexico-U.S. Border Project, said at a news conference.
The group's study of immigration-related law enforcement in five border areas in California, Texas and Florida found 392 people who alleged that they were the victims of abuses, including unjustified shootings, sexual assault and verbal harassment between May, 1989, and May, 1991, according to Martinez.
In comparison, a report for the May, 1988-89 period documented abuse claims by 814 victims, Martinez said.
That decrease was partly because a substantial number of abuse cases in the 1988-89 report involved immigration amnesty applicants who alleged that their temporary residence cards were improperly taken away from them, activists said. There were no such reported incidents in the most recent study, they said.
The areas studied in both reports were San Diego, southern Arizona, El Paso, the lower Rio Grande Valley and south Florida; the agencies targeted by allegations also included the U.S. Customs Service and local police departments.
The study demanded improved firearms policies and training for Border Patrol Agents, citing an audit last year by the Office of Inspector General that found deficiencies in training of some agents involved in shooting incidents.
Martinez also criticized incidents in which three Mexican citizens died in car crashes while being chased by the Border Patrol, saying agents should refrain from high-speed chases.
Border Patrol officials said their firearms procedures have been beefed up recently. And they rejected the notion that the Border Patrol should be blamed for danger to suspected illegal immigrants or drug smugglers who lead agents on car chases.
"Many times the Border Patrol terminates a chase when there is danger," said Steve Kean, Border Patrol spokesman in San Diego. "The smuggler who causes the chase should be held directly responsible."
Of the 392 victims surveyed, 116 made complaints to the federal government and 203 took no action--an indication of the difficulty of protecting the human rights of illegal immigrants, activists said. Some victims filed lawsuits instead, or sought other means of redress.
Legal residents and U.S. citizens also suffered from immigration-related misconduct, the study alleged. One unidentified 15-year-old citizen told researchers he was detained at the San Ysidro Port of Entry and sent back to Mexico, despite showing inspectors a birth certificate and medical records.
"I was taken to the Chula Vista Detention Center of the INS, where I remained for 3 days," the youth said, according to the report. "I spent two weeks living with my aunt in Mexico while my mother obtained another birth certificate in Santa Barbara, where I was born."
Nonetheless, the Border Patrol sees no need to create a civilian review commission, something no other federal law enforcement agency has done, Kean said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Inspector General for the Justice Department are responsible for reviewing allegations of misconduct by agents, he said. Local police investigate Border Patrol shooting incidents in their jurisdictions.
Unlike local police departments, the report pointed out, Border Patrol does not release the names of agents involved in shootings and other incidents. Kean said that policy persists because agents work in a dangerous job involving "national and international concerns."