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"Human and Civil Rights Abuses by Immigration Authorities at the U.S.-Mexico Border,"

by Robert E Koulish September/October 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

Over the past several years, numerous human and immigrant rights organizations have issued reports critical of the U.S. immigration authorities' activities at the U.S.-Mexico border. These reports have directed much needed public attention to the issue of how inhabitants of border communities are treated by im-migration authorities.

To date, however, there has been no systematic research into the treatment of Latinos by U.S. immigration authorities. Instead, they have tended to rely on data collected from individuals who took grievances to governmental or non-governmental organizations.

The present study attempts to examine empirically the treatment of Latinos by US immigration authorities in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. With financial support from PRRAC, and the assistance of PRRAC Board member Maria Jimenez, Director of the American Friends Service Committee's Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project (ILEMP), a survey questionnaire was devised to measure the types of mistreatment and its pervasiveness.


A sample of 185 randomly selected households was drawn from the population of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Each household selected one person to be interviewed, and this person provided information for the entire household.

The two-person interview teams were bilingual college students and workers from local NGOs. Many interviewers were from the localities being studied. The interviewers were instructed to ask questions in the first language of the persons interviewed and to explain to the respondents that this was an academic project, not an activity of a government agency.

The survey instrument was a 45-question survey. The questions were designed to capture three categories of information: general attitudes toward immigra-tion authorities; details about specific encounters with immigration authorities; and demographic characteristics of the persons being interviewed.

Survey Results

The results of the survey confirmed the findings of previous anecdotal studies regarding the types of mistreatment committed. The U.S. Border Patrol commits the largest number of reported abuses, followed by the U.S. Customs Office. One account of Border Patrol mistreatment of a naturalized U.S. citizen is as follows:
I was taking two relatives of mine who were undocumented to do some migrant work. My car was stopped by Border Patrol. I was removed from the car, handcuffed, and my vehicle was taken from me. After I was released, I was walking back towards the Valley and met some other workers along the way. It was night and we started to walk together. The Border Patrol approached and I was arrested again. The officers pulled out shotguns and pointed them at us and we were threatened that we would be shot. They called us "hungry dogs." The officer placed a shotgun at my neck. We were not allowed to talk. I was ordered to lay flat in the Border Patrol van, and eventually I was released.

The most common types of mistreatment by immigration authorities are verbal and legal: harassment, racial slurs, abusive language, and denial of legal rights. A second example, from another U.S. citizen, is as follows:
I was walking home at about 3:40 in the morning when I was stopped by the Border Patrol. The officer started flashing a flashlight up and down. I asked him what he wanted and he told me he wanted to know where I lived. I told him I lived 2 1/2 houses away from where we stood. He shoved me into the Border. Patrol van and searched me, I guess for weapons. After the search, he told me to stop walking around because this might happen again. He got in his van and drove off.

In all, we found a surprisingly high percentage of persons mistreated by immigration officials, 10.2%. Further, most of these victims of INS mistreatment are citizens or legal residents of the United States. No single characteristic strongly predicts mistreatment among Hispanics. Rather, all Hispanics are at risk of experiencing mistreatment, regardless of their gender, age, income, language ability, country of birth, or legal status. Finally, official avenues of complaint and redress are not utilized by citizens or legal residents who are mistreated by immigration authorities. The lack of redress suggests that immigration officers are not accountable for their actions.

In sum, because immigration law enforcement authorities do not distinguish undocumented immigrants from the larger population of Hispanic residents in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, all Mexican and Mexican-Americans are potential targets for abuse. As the federal courts have ruled on the issue, however, immigration law enforcement authorities cannot legitimately single out Hispanics solely on the basis of ethnicity. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in South Texas are subjected on an arbitrary basis to the same border enforcement strategies that were originally devised to deter undocumented immigrants and expedite their removal. As the study also indicates, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in South Texas are still without an effective forum to adequately redress these concerns.


The study was designed to be of use to advocacy groups in their efforts to make policy recommendations to policy designers in the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Immigration Reform Commission, and the Justice Department. The final report has been submitted to the Justice Department, IRC, and selected members of immigration subcommittees in Congress. Further, the data from the study have been used by advocates in support of H. R. 2110, which calls for creation of an immigration law enforcement review commission.

The study is also intended to be of use to advocacy groups in the Valley as an instrument in their efforts at grass-roots organizing. With the assistance of ILEMP, the public was reached through press releases, and copies of the report were forwarded to newspapers and television and radio stations in South Texas and around the nation. On May 20, 1994, the report was the subject of a "Report to the Community" press conference in Harlingen, Texas, in an attempt to draw further attention to INS abuses.

Much follow-up still needs to be done in the colonias surveyed. Publicity and ready access to free legal services is needed for victims of INS abuse. Also needed are workshops to educate colonias about their rights when stopped by immigration officials. It is hoped that our final report will continue to be of use to the residents of the Lower Rio Grand Valley in efforts to demand accountability and justice of our government officials, and to publicize human and civil rights violations throughout the border.

Robert Koulish is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; his dissertation is on the absence of political control over the immigration bureaucracy. His research project was begun in 1990-91 when he was a lecturer at the University of Texas-Pan American; the project was headquartered at the Mid-Valley Community Center in Weslaco, Texas. The full study is available from us with a 9" x 12." SASE with 75˘ postage. A companion study, comparing these results with a similar survey in an Arizona border region (-U.S. Immigration Authorities and Victims of Human and Civil Rights Abuses: The Border Interaction Project Study of S. Tucson and S Texas, " 26 pp., June 1994), is available for $4 from the Mexican American Studies & Research Center, Douglas Bldg. 315, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721.

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