Customs and Border Protection has opened an investigation into the posting of racist and xenophobic messages by current and former Border Patrol agents on a private Facebook group. More than 9,500 people are part of the group, which was exposed by ProPublica on Monday. The Facebook group is filled with racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant and misogynistic content about migrants and asylum seekers, as well as public officials like Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is depicted in a photoshopped image being sexually assaulted by President Trump. In another thread, members of the group made fun of a video of a man trying to carry a child through a rapid river in a plastic bag. Someone commented, “At least it’s already in a trash bag.” We speak with ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson, who broke the story.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: U.S. Customs and Border Protection has opened an investigation into the posting of racist and xenophobic messages by current and former Border Patrol agents on a private Facebook group. More than 9,500 people are part of the group, which was exposed by ProPublica on Monday. The group’s Facebook page is filled with racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant and misogynistic content about migrants, as well as some lawmakers and other high-profile people.
One post contained a photoshopped image of Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being sexually assaulted by President Trump. In another thread, members of the group made fun of a video of a man trying to carry a child through a rapid river in a plastic bag. Someone commented, quote, “At least it’s already in a trash bag,” unquote. Asked by a reporter to respond to her depiction in the Facebook post, Congressmember Ocasio-Cortez said it was, quote, “indicative of the culture” she observed inside the migrant prison she had just visited, and said she did not feel safe around the Border Patrol officers.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: In that last facility, I was not safe from the officers in that facility.
NATASHA CHEN: Do you have any comment about what was posted about you in the alleged Facebook group?
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I mean, I think it’s just—it’s just indicative of the violent culture that we saw on the inside.
AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, members of the New York congressional delegation came together to condemn the postings in the private Facebook group. This is Congressmember Nydia Velázquez.
REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: But here is the most chilling part. The people behind these posts are responsible for the well-being of the most vulnerable among us—children, pregnant women, families. They are enduring desperate conditions. And these posts suggest they are literally in the hands of people who engage in vile, racist online behavior.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Berkeley, California, where we’re joined by A.C. Thompson. He’s the man who broke the story, the ProPublica reporter who covers Border Patrol and policing on the southern border, as well as hate crimes and racial extremism. His new piece is headlined “Inside the Secret Border Patrol Facebook Group Where Agents Joke About Migrant Deaths and Post Sexist Memes.”
A.C., welcome back to Democracy Now! Why don’t you take us on the journey of, first, how you were alerted to this group, that has, what, more than 9,500 participants?
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, I think what’s important to note is that there are people within the Border Patrol and the broader CBP agency who don’t like what’s going on there. They say, “Look, the culture has gotten toxic. It has gotten dangerous.” And there are people that were in that Facebook group who said, “I want to alert the media about this. What’s going on is absolutely unconscionable.”
Interestingly, about 7,000 people have left the group since we first did our reporting. And I think that says something, that people realize this is not a group they want to be associated with, and what was happening there was absolutely incorrect.
AMY GOODMAN: But talk about exactly what you found in this Facebook group. What were people saying?
A.C. THOMPSON: I’ll tell you, I’ve been reporting on law enforcement for more than 20 years, and I have never seen anything like this. I have spent time with corrupt cops, with cops who went to prison. And I just have not seen people who would post memes joking about sexual assault, apparently celebrating sexual assault. And I have not seen people, you know, sort of posting these things, referring to the folks that they’re supposed to interact with, with the migrants, as essentially trash or subhuman. And like I said, I’ve met a lot of bad cops. This is way outside of the norms of normal behavior, whether in the civilian world or the law enforcement world.
There were memes about homophobia, about mocking Anderson Cooper’s sexuality. There were memes questioning whether migrants who had died trying to cross the river between the United States and Mexico were actually—if that actually happened, referring to them as “floaters” and saying maybe it was all a scheme concocted by the Democrats and liberals. I mean, the levels of antipathy for women, for migrants and for just for people in general, very, very high.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, A.C., you noted that CBP agents who have posted this kind of vitriol online in the past have also been found to have been involved in violence or illegal activities against migrants. Could you talk about that, as well?
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, I think, to me, one of the things that’s interesting and concerning—right?—is that we know that, by the agency’s own reporting, they get, quote-unquote, “hundreds” of allegations of excessive force every year. We know that they, by their own reporting, discipline a handful of the agents and officers accused in those allegations of excessive force.
We know that just recently in California, two Guatemalan teenage girls settled a suit with the agency, alleging that they were sexually groped by an agent in a Border Patrol station in Texas. The agency paid out about $125,000 to settle that case, suggesting that it was not a case they wanted to take to trial. And what we know—what I can tell you is that it appears that the agent in question has not been disciplined and is still on the force, and, further, that CBP did not seem willing to disclose his name to the lawyers who were litigating that case.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, we’re talking about CBP as a federal law enforcement agency that is already, what, bigger than the FBI or the DEA. It’s the largest federal law enforcement agency. It also has an extremely high record of agents being arrested, doesn’t it?
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, that’s pretty stunning, right? So, this is the nation’s largest law enforcement agency. And when you combine customs officers with Border Patrol agents, you’re talking about around 40,000 law enforcement agents—much, much bigger than any other law enforcement agency in the country.
What we know is that, for years now, about 250 employees of CBP have been arrested every year. And that’s a really high number. The charges range from the minor traffic stuff to, you know, serious allegations of drug trafficking, of human smuggling, of domestic violence, etc.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back to our discussion with A.C. Thompson, the reporter who broke the story of this private, this secret 9,500-member Facebook group, where—well, we’ll talk about some of the issues that they talk about. We’ll talk about the epithets they hurl. His new piece is headlined “Inside the Secret Border Patrol Facebook Group Where Agents Joke About Migrant Deaths and Post Sexist Memes.” Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Running (Refugee Song)” featuring Gregory Porter and Common. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, on Monday [sic], members of New York’s congressional delegation came together to condemn racist postings by current and former federal Border Patrol agents in a private Facebook group . This is Congresswoman Yvette Clarke of Brooklyn.
REP. YVETTE CLARKE: As a member of the Committee on Homeland Security, I am extremely appalled by what has been uncovered by ProPublica as a Facebook page that is gathering posts by over 9,000 current and former CBP officers. This has to come to an end. Those individuals must be identified, must either resign immediately or be removed from their posts. There is no excuse for that type of behavior amongst the officers that protect us as a nation, that are responsible for giving shelter and care to refugees.
I’ve heard a lot of language about who these people are on our southern border. Let’s make it clear: They are seeking refuge in the United States of America. We send funding around the world to refugee camps, in nations that are war-torn. And here we have, on our own border, the most horrific detention of humankind in this generation, in the United States of America. We cannot abide with this. We will not abide with this.
And as my colleagues have said, we have heard from Donald Trump that he sees these refugees as an infestation. Let me say this: The infestation that we are witnessing is within the Department of Homeland Security, is among those CBP agents who have determined that they are going to see these individuals as less than human and that they will challenge members of Congress, who are only doing their job in seeking out the truth about what is taking place on the border and bringing light to what must be done to recapture our humanity as a nation.
And so, let me just say this. I will not sleep. I will not wink. I will be focused like a laser on uprooting all those within the Department of Homeland Security, whether they are in Customs and Border Protection or they are in ICE. Those who would prey upon defenseless individuals, women and children, who are seeking refuge in our nation, must be purged from our federal service, so that we can recapture who we are as a nation, which is a nation who has welcomed refugees, a nation that has welcomed immigrants, and a nation above all nations, that is great because of its immigrant tradition.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Brooklyn Democratic Congresswoman Yvette Clark speaking with members of the New York congressional delegation on Tuesday—not Monday.
Still with us is A.C. Thompson of ProPublica. His new piece is titled “Inside the Secret Border Patrol Facebook Group Where Agents Joke About Migrant Deaths and Post Sexist Memes.”
A.C., in terms of some of the particulars around, for instance, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that you found on these Facebook posts, could you talk about that, as well?
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah. You know, there’s a particular sort of vitriol directed at the congresswoman. So, there were posts depicting her engaged in sexual activities with migrants in detention. There was the post, that’s been talked about a lot, of her being sexually assaulted by the president. There were posts about hurling burritos at her and Congresswoman Veronica Escobar as they visited detention facilities in Clint, Texas, recently. And there were derogatory slurs used against her and other congresswomen. And I think that’s one of the key issues here, is a sort of hyper-male culture of, you know, basically toxic masculinity, to use that cliché, that’s going on at the agency.
AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “There are 20,000 TOTAL Customs & Border Patrol agents in the US. 9,500—almost HALF that number—are in a racist & sexually violent secret CBP Facebook group. They’re threatening violence on members of Congress. How do you think they’re treating caged children+families?”
Later, AOC tweeted, “Just left the 1st CBP facility. I see why CBP officers were being so physically & sexually threatening towards me. Officers were keeping women in cells w/ no water & had told them to drink out of the toilets. This was them on their GOOD behavior in front of members of Congress,” Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said.
A.C. Thompson, if you could take this further and talk about this group, this private, secret Facebook group, how people came to be a part of it? And as you release one story after another, I mean, this has—to say the least, you’ve gotten to the Trump administration now, as CBP says they’re launching an investigation, among other things. If you can talk about—are people coming forward more and more to you?
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s an important thing to note. There are people within Border Patrol, within CBP, who think this is awful, who say, “Look, we have a job to do. It’s a tough job. It’s very, very difficult. But we also have a need to behave decently. And that’s what law enforcement does, is even under tough conditions, they behave admirably. And that’s not happening right now.” So people are absolutely blowing the whistle. And I encourage anyone else who wants to come forward to reach out to me. And I think there are people within this agency who just say, “Look, this is—what’s happening here is not acceptable.” And I think that’s what you’ve seen with the inspector general for homeland security, too, which is part of the broader DHS umbrella, saying, “The conditions that we’re seeing in detention are inappropriate, the discipline and misconduct patterns at CBP are inappropriate, and this is something that we’re going to report on.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A.C., we’ve seen in recent months exposures of other types of social media groups by law enforcement officers in Philadelphia and other cities, where there was rampant racism and homophobia. And those police departments have begun to take action. But as you have written, the Customs and Border Protection’s discipline system, which was investigated by Congress a few years ago, during the Obama administration, has not substantially changed much, has it? Now there are going to be new hearings, coming up next week, over this latest report of yours. But what about this whole situation of the discipline procedure within the agency?
A.C. THOMPSON: Well, I mean, I think there have been major changes in the last several years. What we used to see was a high number of shootings, often cross-border shootings, at Mexican nationals. And that has dropped dramatically because of new policies that were implemented during the Obama administration. So there have been big improvements there.
But I think what you see is that you see a fragmented discipline system, where a lot of issues are handled at the local level by station supervisors and watch supervisors. It goes on—some stuff is handled by CBP’s internal affairs. Other cases are handled by DHS’s inspector general. Other cases may end up being handled by the FBI and, finally, the Department of Justice. Oh, yeah, also there’s DHS’s Civil Rights Office. So, when you have this many different sort of oversight bodies, I think sometimes what happens is you don’t really have effective oversight, that there’s turf battles, things fall between the cracks, and there’s no sort of unified, effective disciplinary system. And I think that’s what we’re seeing, in general, at that agency.
AMY GOODMAN: A.C. Thompson, you write in your piece in ProPublica, “[I]n early 2018, federal investigators found a raft of disturbing and racist text messages sent by Border Patrol agents in southern Arizona after searching the phone of Matthew Bowen, an agent charged with running down a Guatemalan migrant with a Ford F-150 pickup truck. The texts, which were revealed in a court filing in federal court in Tucson, described migrants as 'guats,' 'wild [bleep, bleep],' 'beaners' and 'subhuman.' The messages included repeated discussions about burning the migrants up.” Now, that’s from over a year ago. And if you can talk about how you think these—what has been going on over this time, the connection of the xenophobic, racist, misogynist language with violence? And talk about what’s coming of this. Do you think this is a system that should simply be reformed or abolished?
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, I think what you’ve seen over recent decades at Border Patrol and the broader CBP is there have been issues. There’s been a troubled history there. But I think if you look back to the Bush administration, George W. Bush, you look back to the Obama administration, the tone from the top was very different than what you’re getting now. And I think what you get in the Trump administration is a very demagogic tone, a very divisive tone. And I think that that is affecting the sort of actions on the ground by the frontline agents and officers at CBP. And I think that’s a huge part of the problem that we’re seeing now. I think that’s how things have changed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Would you like to see some of the White House press corps, hopefully, ask President Trump about his reaction to these posts, especially to posts of him sexually assaulting Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez?
A.C. THOMPSON: I absolutely would. And I heard a question asked of him about this yesterday, I believe. And he seemed to think that it wasn’t a particularly important thing, from what I could tell.
AMY GOODMAN: So, your piece is coming out at the same time that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General has come out with this damning report saying the situation is at a critical crisis level. And you have this series of photographs that were released. I’m not talking about Joaquin Castro inside with the Hispanic congressional delegation, you know, actually using—figuring out a way to get video out of what was going on inside, which was also horrific. But these are pictures taken by the Department of Homeland Security itself—well, the Office of Inspector General—that show the grievous, scandalous overcrowding, the children, the people who are putting up signs that say “help.” It reminded me of Hurricane Katrina with people on their roofs saying “help.” These are the pictures from inside the department. Can you talk about the significance of this report coming out at the same time that your report has come out?
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah. I think the conditions that we’ve seen in detention along the border are absolutely horrifying, right? And I think one of the things that’s concerning about this is that we’ve seen these surges in immigration across the border at different times. This is not a new thing. We went through this phenomenon during the last administration. So this is something that an agency that’s as well funded as CBP should be prepared for. This is something that—it’s something that we know is going to happen from time to time on the border, and so you could be prepared and could be ready to deal with this in a much more humane way than stuffing people in cages by the hundreds.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to turn to the head of the House Judiciary Committee, New York Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, who also spoke on Tuesday here in New York, along with other members of the New York delegation.
REP. JERROLD NADLER: The images we have seen in the last few days from the detention centers in Texas are obviously disgusting. The conditions under which women and children are being held are disgusting and amount to nothing short of child abuse and degradation.
The fact that immigrants, that migrants within the United States can be subjected to such conditions, to such torture, to such deliberate torture, is a symptom and a consequence of the culture of contempt started at the top by the president. … When the president refers to human beings as “infestation,” as if they were rodents, not human beings, this sets the tone and sets the permission for people to be brutal and to be dehumanizing.
All the people who are in those detention facilities are migrants. They all claim asylum. Some of them are entitled under our law to asylum; some are not. All are entitled to humanity, to decent treatment, to decent judicial adjudication, and not to be tortured or regarded as refuse.
All the people in the administration who have done this, who have permitted it, are guilty of child abuse, which is a crime. We ought to prosecute. The people, the agents on Facebook who expressed such contemptuous and racist attitudes ought not to be there. They ought to be fired. But again, they’re not entirely to blame, because they’re reflecting the racism from the White House. They’re reflecting the racism right down the line. We have to put a stop to this.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. A.C. Thompson, the United States wouldn’t keep murderers or prisoners of war in conditions like this, yet they’re keeping—right now our government is keeping people seeking asylum, coming across the border and seeking asylum, in these conditions. What do you think needs to be done by Congress and by the American people over this situation right now?
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. We’ve seen one court case after another involving conventional prisons that say you need to hold people in humane conditions. And I think that’s really what we’re going to expect, from the public, from policymakers, is that you just simply cannot hold human beings in these sorts of absolutely awful, deplorable conditions, that that’s not what America is about. That’s not what we expect from institutions that the taxpayers fund, is to keep people in these kinds of conditions. And I think that’s—I think that this current situation just simply cannot hold, that people will not put up with it.
AMY GOODMAN: A.C., before we move on, I wanted to ask you about another story. In Virginia, James Fields, the self-described neo-Nazi who killed activist Heather Heyer at an anti-hate rally in 2017, was sentenced Friday to life in prison. Fields plowed his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville at the counterprotest of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally. Following the rally and Heyer’s killing, President Trump claimed there were “fine people” on both sides. A.C., you were in Charlottesville in 2017 and did the award-winning Frontline documentary, Documenting Hate. Can you talk about the significance of the sentencing of James Fields, and also the work you did identifying the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists who were marching? Perhaps scarier than if they were marching under white sheets is that they felt comfortable to march with their faces completely exposed. And you steadfastly have identified a number of these people. So, the significance of the sentencing of Fields and the work you did there, and if you see connections to what you’re doing right now, exposing this private Facebook group of nearly 10,000 border agents?
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, I think the Fields case is a really important case, a victory for prosecutors. And in some of these other cases that we’ve seen coming out of Unite the Right and coming out of the white supremacist violence of that year, prosecutors have had mixed results. Some of these cases have been tossed out by judges. And this is one of the ones that has been really very successful for prosecutors. And I think it’s a key message being sent there.
I think the thing that I see that’s really disturbing—right?—is when you go inside the white supremacist chats, there is this misogyny. There is this almost misanthropy. There’s this anger at everyone, and this discussion of all these different groups of people as subhuman. When you go inside the Border Patrol Facebook group, the secret Facebook group, a lot of these guys, maybe most of these people, are Chicanos. A lot of them are Mexican Americans. And yet there’s also this sort of misogyny and dehumanizing sort of language and sort of a sense that one group of people—migrants—are “the other,” and they’re so different from us that they can’t really be human. And I see definite parallels between the two different sorts of groups, the white supremacist groups and what they’re talking about online and then these Border Patrol Facebook groups and sort of what they’re talking about online, even though a lot of the people in the Border Patrol group are not white.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, are you going to be testifying before Congress?
A.C. THOMPSON: I don’t know. I think I hope not, but we’ll see.
AMY GOODMAN: And also, did you have any evidence of CBP, Customs and Border Protection, or other agencies of the U.S. government knowing about this private, this, what you call secret, Facebook page?
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, yeah. And I call it secret because that’s what it’s labeled as on Facebook. It’s not visible to outsiders who aren’t members. You know, here’s the thing—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that. Explain the difference between private and secret.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right, right. So, this is a—people ask me, like, “How do I find this Facebook group?” And the answer is: You don’t find it, unless you’ve been invited to join it. And it is labeled on the front page as a secret group. It is not visible to outsiders at all.
I don’t know that this has been reported to any of those many different oversight bodies for CBP before this. I have to think it probably was at some point. And that will be, I think, a key thing to ask policymakers and agency officials, like, “Hey, did anyone tell you about this? Because there was a lot of people in it, and it seems like somebody had to have reported this in the past. And if so, what happened to that report? Did you act on it?”
AMY GOODMAN: A.C. Thompson, we want to thank you for being with us. A.C. Thompson of ProPublica, his new piece headlined “Inside the Secret Border Patrol Facebook Group Where Agents Joke About Migrant Deaths and Post Sexist Memes,” we’ll link to it at democracynow.org.
When we come back, we go to Tucson, Arizona, where federal prosecutors have decided to retry humanitarian aid volunteer Scott Warren for trying to ensure that migrants get water, get food, get clothing as they make their way into this country. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Ice” by La Santa Cecilia. You can go to their performance at Democracy Now! and our interview with them at democracynow.org.