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Women’s Refugee Commission Calls for Customs and Border Protection to Improve Its Woefully Inadequate Complaint System

WASHINGTON, DC–The Women's Refugee Commission staff has met with more than 150 children, aged 15 to 17, who had been apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) along the U.S./Mexico border. Almost all of them told distressing stories of mistreatment at the hands of Border Patrol officials, including being dragged along the ground and Tasered, and held in ice-cold cells at Border Patrol stations known as “la hielera” (the freezer). The children were unable to file complaints about the abuse they suffered because they had no Internet access in federal detention.

“When the Women's Refugee Commission filed complaints on behalf of four of the children, we learned firsthand that CBP's abuse complaint system, while much needed and vitally important, is woefully inadequate and unresponsive,” said Jennifer Podkul, senior program officer, Migrant Rights and Justice program. “Without a functioning complaint system, CBP is subject to little, if any, effective oversight. Complaints of abuse are difficult or impossible to file even for trained professionals, let alone a detained child.”

The WRC found that once filed, the investigation of complaints is ineffective and inadequate. Responses are often not received at all. Such fundamental inadequacies beg the question of whether CBP has any serious interest in receiving or addressing complaints—and thus in running a system that recognizes the rights of the detained.

In addition, the CBP complaint system is set up to perpetuate detained immigrants' ignorance of their rights to just treatment, and of their right to complain if they are abused. There are no signs in CBP holding areas to inform children and adults of these rights. Even if they come to know their rights, they have no means to make a complaint while they are in custody. They have no Internet access, limited or no phone access, and are not provided with paper complaint forms.

“Even if the victim of abuse is lucky enough to have an attorney or other individual make a third party claim for them, the online complaint system is inefficient and extremely difficult to use,” said Podkul. “An attorney representing children in Department of Homeland Security custody told us they spent two weeks trying to obtain a login and password for the online CBP complaint system. If the complaint system is difficult to navigate for a trained adult English speaker, then it must be nearly impossible for a non-English speaker–especially a child.”

At a recent meeting with CBP officials, the Women's Refugee Commission was informed that there is a telephone hotline available to make complaints about CBP. There is nothing about it on the CBP website, nor is there any information posted in CBP facilities—so, similarly to the online complaint system, there is no way for those who need it to access it. And even if they could, there are no Spanish speakers available to take calls on the hotline.

The lack of visibility, accessibility, transparency and language assistance makes the complaint system practically irrelevant, and renders the entire system useless.

To rectify these grave errors, the Women's Refugee Commission calls on DHS and CBP to:

  1. Ensure individuals are informed of their right to make a complaint about their treatment and the conditions in CBP facilities. There should be postings in multiple languages that include the procedure for doing so.
  2. Institute a mechanism for filing a complaint that is accessible to all detainees—both in custody and post-release or post-transfer. Fundamentally, the system should not limit the ability of an individual to make a complaint. It must accept handwritten complaints, and it must have an improved online interface. The hotline number should be provided, as well as confidential access to telephones and support for multiple languages.
  3. Create a streamlined process for review of complaints to the agency. An autonomous office outside of CBP should review the complaints. This review should include identification of trends and areas of systemic abuse so the agency can modify its training and supervision accordingly.
  4. Process complaints more quickly and inform the person filing the complaint of its status. As it stands, CBP does not provide updates on the status of the review process or information about actions being taken to address the complaints made.
  5. Ensure that supervisors receive a report of all complaints made and meet to discuss the ways in which they can improve their practices and modify their training to ensure that harmful and abusive practices are curtailed.
  6. Give access to NGOs to monitor CBP facilities, treatment of migrants in their custody and the implementation of standards, due process and access to complaint mechanisms.

“CBP has stated that they rarely receive complaints, implying that there are no problems with the way in which migrants are treated in their custody,” said Podkul. “This sleight of logic is not only embarrassing to the agency, but frustrates any accountability and transparency to Congress and the public. With these concrete steps, CBP can make tremendous progress toward protecting the rights of vulnerable migrants.”

Click here to read a position paper on this issue.

Jennifer Podkul is available for interview at 202.507.5385, jenniferp@wrcommission.org.