On the Boundary of Abuse and Accountability

July 12, 2012


On May 10, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the cabinet-level department that includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the target of the grievance. The 17-page complaint focuses on what the ACLU characterizes as “widespread abuse of travelers” by CBP officers at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico boundary.1

The alleged abuses—a number of which are graphically detailed in the complaint—include “excessive force; unwarranted, invasive and humiliating personal searches; unjustified and repeated detentions based on misidentification; and the use of coercion to force individuals to surrender their legal rights, citizenship documents, and property.”

Because the victims of these abuses typically “find themselves without effective means of seeking redress,” asserts the ACLU, the cases are not thoroughly and independently investigated—despite “repeated bilateral commitments between the governments of the United States and Mexico throughout the past three administrations to treat all migrants in a manner that respects their human rights and dignity.”

For such reasons, the ACLU takes DHS to task for its lack of “commitment to investigating abuse of power, and the resulting civil and human rights abuses, by CBP officers.” The ACLU calls for immediate investigations of the cases detailed in the complaint and demands “a comprehensive investigation of whether CBP Office of Field Operations officers are complying with their obligations under the U.S. Constitution, international law, and agency guidelines.” The ACLU hopes the investigation will generate recommendations for institutional changes to border officer training, as well as oversight and accountability mechanisms with the goal of preventing further abuses.

What does accountability mean in such a case, and what should the parameters of the process be—that is, if a key goal is to prevent future instances of brutality? These are among the questions raised by the ACLU’s intervention.


Instructive in this regard is one of the most atrocious, high-profile cases highlighted by the ACLU complaint—the killing of Anastasio Hernández Rojas. The complaint comes on the heels of the PBS documentary Crossing the Line at the Border, which provides shocking evidence, including witness accounts and new video footage, that U.S. federal agents brutally beat, tased, and ultimately killed Hernández Rojas in May 2010—while he lay on the ground with his arms handcuffed behind his back.2 The revelations provide a compelling counter to the official tale of what transpired.3

Born in Mexico, Hernández Rojas arrived in the United States at the age of 16. For more than 27 years, he lived and labored in el norte, where he married and had five children. In May 2010, after losing his construction job, he was arrested for shoplifting. When a background check showed that he was in the country without official sanction, the police turned him over to federal authorities, who deported him to Mexico. Not willing to accept exile from his wife and children, Hernández Rojas quickly crossed back into the United States, but Border Patrol agents intercepted him in a remote area in southern California as he tried to head home.

At the detention facility, an agent allegedly assaulted and injured Hernández Rojas, which led him to express a desire to file a complaint. That same agent reportedly was one of two who drove him back—alone—to the official port of entry in San Ysidro (the southernmost portion of San Diego) to deport him again. It was there, just a few feet from the actual boundary with Mexico, where the nighttime, deadly assault took place, involving over a dozen agents.

A San Diego County Medical Examiner’s report concluded that Hernández Rojas died of a heart attack triggered by the Taser and ruled his death a homicide. (According to an Amnesty International report, 334 people died in the United States between June 2001 and August 2008 after being shocked with a conducted-energy weapon, such as a Taser—a supposedly nonlethal device.4) Hernández Rojas also had broken ribs, several loosened teeth, bruises all over his body and head, and an injury to his spine.

What allowed the beating and electrocution to go legally unchallenged was the uncritical acceptance of the CBP account of events by authorities at various levels. According to the agency’s official story, agents did what they did because an unhandcuffed Hernández Rojas “became combative,” and the use of batons and the Taser was necessary to “subdue the individual and maintain officer safety.”5

The blatant nature of the brutality, the cover-up, and what appear to be clear violations of the law have helped to provoke widespread outcry. From press conferences, to an online petition, demonstrations, and myriad news reports, a national campaign has emerged, with pressure mounting on federal authorities to conduct a far-reaching investigation into Hernández Rojas’s death.6

More broadly, advocates—such as John Carlos Frey, a documentary filmmaker and an investigative reporter involved with the making of Crossing the Line at the Border—point to an institutional culture of impunity that allows killings by Border Patrol agents to go virtually unexamined outside the agency. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Frey emphasizes that at least eight cases have been documented since May 2010 in which the Border Patrol’s extreme use of force has resulted in the death of unarmed and non-combative migrants. He points to the rush to recruit ever more agents in the aftermath of 9/11 and the lower standards of recruitment and training as contributing to the fatal violence.7

The CBP has refused to release the names of the agents involved, so it is not known whether relatively new agents recruited and trained under less rigorous criteria are responsible for these deaths. But his argument suggests that better-qualified agents are the answer to the problem. Rigorous applicant screening, good training, and some sort of public oversight mechanism are no doubt preferable to the lack thereof. But in privileging such factors, what gets obscured is the everyday violence—and death and suffering—that the federal boundary and immigration enforcement apparatus causes through its normal practices.

Over the last couple of decades, thousands of migrants have lost their lives trying to traverse the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and enter the United States in order to find work or rejoin loved ones. U.S. authorities have also sent millions into exile abroad, many of them long-standing U.S. residents with almost nonexistent ties to their countries of birth. In the process they have separated hundreds of thousands of children from their parents.8 They have also reduced the life spans of many deportees: In a particularly egregious case, one of the first people “removed” to Haiti after the Obama administration resumed deportations to the earthquake-ravaged country in 2011 contracted and died of cholera soon after arriving.9

The law and the institutionalized nature of the practices that produce these outcomes help to obscure the violence they embody and the related death and suffering. But just because many do not see the violence for what it is—death-producing—does not mean it is anything less.

Since the establishment of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, killing people and denying life has been central to the international divide. Its very foundation necessitated a war of conquest and the dispossession of the Native and Mexican populations in the borderlands. In the face of so many who refuse to accept the original injustice, the maintenance of the U.S.-Mexico border has required various forms of violence on a regular basis ever since. In a world of profound inequality—one predicated on the production of differences such as race, class, and nationality—the boundary reflects and reproduces who gets what rights and resources. It illustrates and shapes the very nature of life and death, and the various states in between.


Anastasio Hernández Rojas was born on the wrong side of the boundary dividing people and places of privilege from those of disadvantage. Like countless others in the eyes of the U.S. ruling class, he thus became disposable. When U.S. authorities deported Hernández Rojas to Mexico and deprived him of his right to be with his family, they effectively denied his right to live. And when they beat and tased him to death, they did so as well.

There is no question that even within the parameters of DHS/CBP policing something is dreadfully wrong—not only at the U.S.-Mexico boundary but throughout the territory in which the CBP is active. As the ACLU asserts, the cases it discusses are “consistent with a pattern of CBP abuse along the border, in detention facilities, and in other parts of the interior.”

It is important to bring to light the parties responsible for these abuses and hold them accountable. This will hopefully go a long way to minimizing the reoccurrence of such injustices. But achieving true justice and accountability in cases such as Hernández Rojas’s killing requires that we go far beyond the parameters of this particular incident.

It necessitates that we contest the very socio-territorial arrangement that made him—and makes countless others—disposable in the first place. If we fail to do so, we will end up affirming and strengthening a boundary that grants life to some, and consigns so many others to death.




Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Among his books are Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights/Open Media, 2008) and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2010).




1. ACLU, “Customs and Border Protection—Complaint,” May 10, 2012, available at aclu.org.

2. Elizabeth Aguilera, “New Video in 2010 Taser Border Death,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 19, 2012.

3. Brian Epstein, Crossing the Line at the Border, PBS, April 20, 2012, available at pbs.org.

4. Amnesty International, “Less Than Lethal”? The Use of Stun Weapons in US Law Enforcement (Amnesty International Publications, December 16, 2008).

5. Randal C. Archibold, “San Diego Police Investigate the Death of a Mexican Man Resisting Deportation,” The New York Times, June 1, 2010.

6. Elizabeth Aguilera, “Border-Death Documentary Helps Launch National Campaign,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 24, 2012.

7. John Carlos Frey, “What’s Going On With the Border Patrol?” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2012.

8. See Seth Freed Wessler, “U.S. Deports 46K Parents With Citizen Kids in Just Six Months,” Colorlines.com, November 3, 2011.

9. Jamilah King, “Haitian Deportee Dies After Cholera Symptoms,” Colorlines.com, February 7, 2011.


Read the rest of NACLA’s Summer 2012 issue: “Latin America and the Global Economy.”



Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.