Border Patrol Agents in Secret Facebook Group Faced Few Consequences for Misconduct
SENSITIVE CONTENT WARNING
This report reproduces content of a sensitive, offensive, discriminatory, and sexual nature. This content is included in the report to provide a clear record of social media misconduct by Customs and Border Protection employees.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
This staff report presents the findings of an investigation launched in 2019 by the Committee on Oversight and Reform into violent and offensive posts by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel in secret Facebook groups. The most prominent of these groups, a private group for Border Patrol agents called “I’m 10-15,” had more than 9,500 members in July 2019. The Committee’s investigation followed alarming media reports of CBP employees threatening harm to migrants and elected officials on the “I’m 10-15” page.
The Committee requested documents from CBP in July 2019 to determine whether agents who posted this content were allowed to continue working with migrants and to assess whether appropriate disciplinary action was taken. After the Trump Administration obstructed this inquiry for more than a year, CBP finally began producing complete unredacted documents in February 2021, after President Trump left office.
Documents obtained by the Committee show that although CBP was aware of misconduct on “I’m 10-15” since August 2016, the agency took minimal action to strengthen social media training or guidance after the media began reporting on agents’ misconduct and the Committee launched its investigation in 2019.
The Committee found that CBP conducted 135 investigations into personnel affiliated with “I’m 10-15” and similar secret Facebook groups. The agency determined that 60 CBP agents engaged in misconduct and were subject to discipline. However, the discipline imposed on most of those agents was significantly reduced from the recommendation made by CBP’s Discipline Review Board. Eighteen agents whom the Board recommended removing from their positions due to serious misconduct had their discipline reduced to suspensions. One proposed removal was reduced to a letter of reprimand, and another was reduced to an “oral admonishment.” Most of these agents were then allowed to resume working with migrants and children. For example:
- A Border Patrol agent who posted a sexually explicit doctored image and derogatory comments about a Member of Congress had his discipline reduced from removal to a 60-day suspension and was awarded back pay.
- A Border Patrol supervisor who improperly posted an internal CBP video of a migrant falling off a cliff to their death, as well as an explicit and offensive comment about a Member of Congress, had their discipline reduced from removal to a 30-day suspension.
- A Border Patrol agent with a history of multiple infractions was allowed to retire with disability benefits rather than face removal or any other discipline after posting a photograph of a drowned father and child and referring derisively to them as “floaters.”
These outcomes were the result of a number of failings at CBP, including an inconsistent disciplinary process, a failure to train on and enforce social media policies, and senior leadership’s failure to take appropriate actions despite knowledge of these Facebook groups.
The Committee’s investigation resulted in the following key findings:
- At Least 60 Agents Committed Misconduct Related to Secret Facebook Groups During the Trump Administration, but Only Two Were Removed: Of the 60 agents that CBP determined had committed misconduct, two agents were removed, 43 were suspended without pay, 12 received letters of reprimand, and three were issued alternate disciplinary actions such as a suspension with pay. Ten other employees retired from federal service before a final misconduct finding was made. In addition, 11 employees received corrective or non-disciplinary actions, such as letters of caution.
- CBP Reduced Most Agents’ Final Discipline and Allowed Agents to Continue Working with Migrants: Most of the 60 agents who committed misconduct received reduced penalties, and 57 of them continue to work with migrants today. Of the other three, CBP removed two from the agency and the other is an investigator who does not work with migrants. The vast majority of agents—including those who made degrading and even threatening comments about migrants—received only minor discipline.
- CBP Knew About Agents’ Inappropriate Facebook Posts Three Years Before It Was First Publicly Reported: From August 2016 to November 2017, CBP investigated 13 cases of agents posting racist and sexist content on the “I’m 10-15” Facebook group, according to documents obtained by the Committee. CBP suspended one agent for three days, issued written reprimands or counseling in eight cases, and closed the remaining four cases without any action.
- Weaknesses in the Disciplinary Process Hampered CBP’s Ability to Hold Agents Accountable: Documents obtained by the Committee reveal that CBP officials were given wide discretion to determine disciplinary penalties and that the penalties for similar instances of misconduct were inconsistent. Arbitrators used the inconsistent penalties as a basis for reducing penalties.
- CBP Provided Insufficient Social Media Guidance and Training to Agents: Agents charged with misconduct expressed confusion or unawareness regarding CBP’s social media guidelines. Starting in 2019, CBP began requiring mandatory annual training on social media. Prior related trainings were not taken seriously, even by CBP management. For example, the acting chief at one sector that received training said it was perceived as “punishment for all, due to the actions of a few” and that agents were disruptive during the training session.
- CBP Employees Have Low Morale: Agents told CBP investigators that they used the “I’m 10-15” Facebook group to vent their frustrations with CBP and job dissatisfaction. Federal employee surveys have long shown that CBP employees have low morale and view the agency as having a poor organizational climate.
President Biden recently reminded Americans that we “deserve Federal, state, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement that approach their critical tasks without any racial bias or any other biases.” Americans entrust CBP personnel with protecting our borders and expect them to adhere to high standards and uphold CBP’s core values. Border Patrol agents serve in positions of power over vulnerable populations, including ethnic minorities, women, and children. According to CBP’s official website, “Integrity is our cornerstone. We are guided by the highest ethical and moral principles. Our actions bring honor to ourselves and our agency.”
The offensive images and comments on the “I’m 10-15” Facebook group are antithetical to the CBP ethos and undermine the work carried out by dedicated CBP employees every day. Unfortunately, the agency failed to take adequate steps to prevent this conduct or impose consistent discipline on agents who engaged in it, creating a serious risk that this conduct could continue. This report makes several recommendations to improve CBP’s policies, training, and disciplinary process in order to address these issues.