EL PASO — Federal officials are investigating whether agents participated in a private Facebook group for Border Patrol employees that hosted racist, sexist and sexually violent memes about immigrants and officials such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Matthew Klein, an assistant commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, called the Facebook group’s posts “disturbing” and said the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, of which CBP is a part, began an investigation after a report by the investigative site ProPublica.
The posts on the private group, which says it is for current and former Border Patrol agents, included caustic remarks about the deaths of migrants, sexually explicit images edited to include images of Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and xenophobic asides and comments, according to ProPublica.
The Washington Post was not able to confirm the existence of the group, called “I’m 10-15,” after the law enforcement code for “aliens in custody.” The private group is not visible to people who are not members.
“Where Old Patrol meets New Patrol,” the group described itself, according to images ProPublica shared. “We are family, first and foremost. This is where the Green line starts, with us.”
Some of the memes shared on the group’s page that ProPublica reported on include a photo illustration that depicts Ocasio-Cortez being forced to give oral sex to President Trump. Another depicted her giving oral sex at a detention center for immigrants, ProPublica reported.
On a post about a 16-year-old migrant who died in Border Patrol custody, group members responded with comments such as, “Oh well,” and “If he dies, he dies.”
One commenter talked about starting a fundraising site to support a Border Patrol agent to throw burritos at Ocasio-Cortez and another lawmaker, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), who were part of a Democratic delegation that on Monday visited Border Patrol stations in El Paso and Clint, Tex., as well as an El Paso facility for children operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Before the tour, several members of the delegation asked their hosts in a private briefing whether they would be safe inside, said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.).
The airing of the attacks in the private Facebook group, Aguilar said, made it even more difficult for congressional overseers to trust the Border Patrol as the federal government works to address the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s very tough to back them up when their active and retired members are part of this Facebook page,” he said in an interview. “Even if it’s a very small percentage, it’s unfortunate they harbor some very dark imagery and very dark thoughts about migrants and members of Congress.”
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus organized the trip after conditions at the Clint facility prompted an outcry last month, with lawyers who visited describing scenes of hundreds of sick and dirty children without their parents and inconsolable toddlers in the care of other children.
During Monday’s visit to Clint, lawmakers saw only about two dozen migrant children being held there, down from about 700 in May, Aguilar said. Members expressed more-pointed concerns about the El Paso facility, where they said several hundred people were still detained.
They described a visit with a group of more than a dozen Cuban women housed in a crowded cell without running water who reported going weeks without showers. Though the delegates’ cellphones were confiscated, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), the caucus’s chairman, managed to bring in a recording device on which he captured photos and video of the women.
He and other delegation members shared the images and footage on Twitter Monday night.
Ocasio-Cortez said one woman said she was told by Border Patrol officers to drink out of a toilet. “And that was them knowing that a congressional visit was coming,” the visibly angry lawmaker said in an interview. “This is CBP on their best behavior, telling people to drink out of the toilet.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), another member of the delegation, echoed Ocasio-Cortez’s description in an account posted to Twitter and said the conditions at the facility were “appalling and disgusting.” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) called them indicative of a “human rights crisis.”
A DHS official, who was not authorized to discuss the visit and spoke on the condition of anonymity, insisted that no Border Patrol agent would make a migrant in custody drink from a toilet and said there was water available.
Aguilar and others said the revelations surrounding the Facebook group — which came to light during the morning visit to the HHS facility — colored the visits later in the day to the Border Patrol sites.
“It shocks the conscience that these agents are entrusted with the lives of anybody in their custody, much less vulnerable people,” Castro said. “And the vulgar xenophobia and sexism is clearly pervasive.”
The Facebook group confirmed “some of the worst criticism of Customs and Border Protection,” Castro told ProPublica.
The report drew wide criticism of the Border Patrol from other Democratic lawmakers, including presidential candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Racist and sexist behavior on the part of those who wear a uniform of the United States is unacceptable,” tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “The DHS must investigate and take strong action against those found guilty of this vulgar behavior.”
Sanders added: “This is simply horrific. The dehumanization of immigrants has got to end and those involved in this must be held accountable. Thank you @AOC for standing up to the indignity of what is occurring in detention centers.”
On Twitter, shortly before visiting a border detention facility in Texas, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “This isn’t about ‘a few bad eggs.’ This is a violent culture. … How on earth can CBP’s culture be trusted to care for refugees humanely?”
She later returned to the platform to respond to accusations in a news report that she “screamed” at officers in a “threatening manner” while touring the Texas site with other members of Congress.
The Washington Examiner report quoted two unnamed witnesses who claimed they, along with 40 other people, saw Ocasio-Cortez “crying and screaming and yelling” at a Border Patrol facility in El Paso. The report claimed agents wanted to respond but were held back because she was a lawmaker.
“And to these CBP officers saying they felt ‘threatened’ by me,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in response. “… They confiscated my phone, and they were all armed. I’m 5’4”. They’re just upset I exposed their inhumane behavior.”
In a statement Tuesday, the congresswoman’s communications office called the Examiner’s report an “inaccurate depiction of events.”
“The Congresswoman spoke sternly to a CBP agent that tried to take a stealth selfie with the Congresswoman in a mocking manner, despite the gravity of the situation,” the statement said.
Customs and Border Protection is a central component of the Trump administration’s attempts to stanch the flow of migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.
CBP’s conduct standards forbid making “abusive, derisive, profane, or harassing statements or gestures, or engag[ing] in any other conduct evidencing hatred or invidious prejudice to or about one person or group on account of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability,” including on social media.
The Border Patrol’s chief of operations, Brian Hastings, said on CNN that the posts “do not represent the thoughts of the men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol. … Don’t let the actions of a few be representative of the whole, is what I’d ask.”
Hastings added that if any agents are found to have been responsible for the Facebook posts, “the appropriate disciplinary actions will be taken.”
“These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see — and expect — from our agents day in and day out,” Carla Provost, head of the Border Patrol, said in a statement.
The National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents the vast majority of Border Patrol agents, said it condemned the inappropriate content in the Facebook group.
“The content found in this group — whose membership is comprised of agents, retired employees, employees who no longer work for Border Patrol, and members of the public — is not representative of our employees and does a great disservice to all Border Patrol agents, the overwhelming majority of whom perform their duties honorably,” it said in a statement.
John Wagner contributed to this report.