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‘Heartbroken and horrified.’ Immigrant advocates react to secret border patrol Facebook group

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Texas’ top leaders said the troops would be focused on helping U.S. Border Patrol agents at detention facilities and ports of entry in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley. The federal government would cover costs.
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Texas’ top leaders said the troops would be focused on helping U.S. Border Patrol agents at detention facilities and ports of entry in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley. The federal government would cover costs.

Leaders from local immigration advocacy groups are expressing their anger and concerns following the revelation of a secret Facebook group where past and present border control agents made light of migrant issues, often in grotesque detail.

ProPublica, an investigative nonprofit agency, revealed the private group boasting about 9,500 members in a report that included screenshots.

The images depict a number of troubling interactions, from jokes about throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress, to Photoshopped images of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez designed to make her look like she’s performing oral sex. Underneath one post about a 16-year-old Guatemalan immigrant dying in a Weslaco border patrol station, commenters posted memes with indifferent captions such as “Oh well” and “If he dies, he dies,” according to the ProPublica report.

In a statement sent to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said, “These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see — and expect — from our agents day in and day out.” An investigation from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, is reportedly underway to determine current employees who were involved.

But, for local advocates for immigrants, the unearthed Facebook group confirmed some of their worst fears about attitudes and biases within a government agency that has a presence across Texas.

“It was very disturbing,” said Luis Castillo, the president of the Arlington League of United Latin American Citizens. “My expectation would be that they would maintain their professionalism and ... not show any bias.”

The discovery of the Facebook group comes as outrage over migrant holding centers has reached a crescendo following the wide circulation of photos showing overcrowding in the facilities.

Those photos were released by the the Office of Inspector General, after officials traveled to south Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. The group, according to a report accompanying the photos, “observed serious overcrowding and prolonged detention in Border Patrol facilities.”

There’s a U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in Dallas, according to the agency’s website.

The private Facebook group — called “I’m 10-15,” the border patrol code for “aliens in custody” — was created in August 2016 and was described as a forum for “funny” and “serious” discussion about the job, ProPublica reported.

Local response

Texas Impact, a statewide interfaith agency focusing on justice issues including immigration, has sent representatives to the U.S.-Mexico border roughly once a week for the past year.

Executive Director Bee Moorhead said through the agency’s Courts & Ports program, some members have monitored mass trials on the border with the aid of the ACLU, while others have interviewed migrants. People, she said, have observed concerning practices such as migrants going to trial wearing dirty clothes they had crossed water in.

The discovery of the Facebook group has left Moorhead “heartbroken and horrified,” she said. The disconcerting posts and comments, she said, reflect the “messaging priorities” of President Donald Trump’s administration.

But she also noted these are “bad actors” and plenty of border patrol agents are decent “public servants.”

“They are Texans who are trying to do a good job under impossibly conflicted circumstances,” she said. “It’s devastating to see that whole group characterized the way that now they’re going to be characterized.”

Rev. Franz Schemmel — a pastor from Messiah Lutheran Church in Weatherford and a Texas Impact board member — said “we owe our officers honor, support and respect for the work they do on our behalf.”

“Nevertheless,” he said, “the trust we place in them comes with the highest expectations of respect for constitutional and human rights, protection of the vulnerable and common human decency.”

However, Fort Worth teacher Ernie Moran said he sees the Facebook group as evidence of widespread bias within U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Moran, a former Star-Telegram employee, started a group called Patriots for the Children about a year ago that has organized protests over family separation at the border.

To him, the fact the Facebook group is nearly three years old and had to be discovered by investigative reporting “makes it really hard to make the case that, ‘Oh, this is just a few bad apples,’” he said.

It was also concerning, he said, people in the group were fine with sharing the opinions among thousands.

“Clearly they felt comfortable enough to share this in a group that large,” said Moran, who teaches bilingual classes and has had a migrant student who was detained with family. “This wasn’t someone saying it to one or two close confidants.”

But the border patrol’s labor union, the National Border Patrol Council, said in a statement this was “a handful of people who posted inappropriate content out of 9,500 members of the Facebook group.” It’s inevitable, according to the statement, there will be “a subset of people whose values do not represent the entirety of those in the larger group.”

Mike Peyton, the co-leader of progressive activist group Indivisible Grapevine Area Action, said he can’t make a determination on whether the issue is systemic. There are likely “many, many good agents,” he said, and “almost certainly a lot of bad ones.”

Peyton just knows the comments reported by ProPublica are “abhorrent to a civilized society,” he said.

His hope, he said, is that any decent border patrol agents don’t become worse by being around a culture of dehumanization.

“That scares me the most,” he said.

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