The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion U.S. Border Patrol agents should face much harsher punishments for racist and sexist posts

Border Patrol agents hold a news conference in Donna, Tex., on May 2, 2019. (Eric Gay/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Border Patrol agents are not teenagers, but some act as if they were. Their toxic social media postings and online forays into racism, misogyny, or other forms of antisocial or hateful behavior are not adolescent peccadillos to be dismissed with wrist slaps, eye rolls and boys-will-be-boys indulgence.

Yet that is largely how the misconduct of scores of those agents was handled by top officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, in recent years. Thus did the agency, under both the Trump and Obama administrations, debase standards and expectations for badge-wearing agents who represent the United States.

A report by the House Oversight Committee found that even after an internal CBP disciplinary board recommended two dozen firings of employees who had posted offensive images and commentary on a secret Facebook group, just two were dismissed and the others issued suspensions and letters of reprimand.

That’s a fine way to encourage more such behavior and cultivate a culture within the agency that winks at noxious postings that objectify women, minorities and migrants.

The postings mainly took place on a Facebook page known as “I’m 10-15,” which is Border Patrol patois for “aliens in custody.” Some senior officials were aware of the page as early as 2016, and two CBP chiefs were even members of it — a way to monitor the troops, they told investigators. The page could have passed for a teenage trash talk group chat. It’s pathetic that its membership of 9,500 apparently consisted mainly of CBP personnel.

Some posts questioned the authenticity of a wrenching photo of a drowned migrant father and child. (The photo was authentic.) One referred to the corpses derisively as “floaters.” Another featured a digitally altered, sexually explicit image of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a CBP critic, along with nasty remarks about her. A glance in one direction on the page might have landed upon a white-supremacist symbol. A glance in another would reveal a CBP video, unauthorized for public dissemination, featuring a migrant falling off a cliff to his death.

A spokeswoman for CBP insisted the agency will not tolerate conduct “unbecoming of the honor we hold as public servants.” The trouble is, the agency has tolerated just that, by meting out punishments lighter in most cases than the disciplinary board recommended. In some cases, those punishments were determined after mediation with the main union representing CBP agents.

Earlier this year, a report by the Homeland Security inspector general’s office found that while senior CBP leaders were probably not aware of most of the “10-15” posts until they were revealed by media reports, they did nothing to prevent further bad behavior until told to do so by higher-ups at Homeland Security.

The department’s current leadership, under Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, appears to be taking a tougher line and insisting upon more rigorous training that makes clear that such conduct is intolerable. It’s about time. A rogue agency in charge of patrolling America’s borders is an embarrassment to the nation.