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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

DHS initiative to root out right-wing extremists within ranks faces uphill climb at Border Patrol

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“We recognize that domestic violent extremism and the ideology, the extremist ideologies that spew it, are prevalent,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in making the announcement. “We have a responsibility, given what we do, to ensure that that pernicious influence does not exist in our department.”

Earlier this month, the Biden administration asked Congress to bolster funding levels for workforce oversight offices within CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by 22%—some $470 million—but did not explain what prompted the request.  

The additional funding, a budget-proposal summary explained, would ensure that workforce complaints are investigated quickly—”including those related to white supremacy or ideological and non-ideological beliefs.”

The DHS internal review announced Monday would task senior officials with determining whether extremist agencies is prevalent within the department’s multiple agencies, which also include the Secret Service and the Coast Guard. With more than 240,000 employees—58,000 of whom work at CBP—Homeland Security comprises one of the nation’s largest law-enforcement authorities.

In 2019, ProPublica revealed the existence of a secret Facebook group where Border Patrol agents used demeaning epithets to describe immigrants, joked about migrant deaths, and posted sexist memes. One discussed throwing burritos at visiting members of Congress, while another posted a meme depicting Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaging in oral sex with a migrant.

Another agent posted a meme with a photo of Donald Trump forcing Ocasio-Cortez’s head toward his crotch, written in an admiring parody of Trump: “That’s right bitches. The masses have spoken and today democracy won. I have returned. To everyone who knows the real me and had my back I say thank you. To everyone else? This is what I have to say…”

These messages were not the only incident involving racist texts from CBP agents. As ProPublica noted, federal investigators uncovered disturbing and racist text messages sent by southern Arizona Border Patrol agents in 2018 during a search on the phone of an agent charged with running down a Guatemalan migrant with a pickup truck. According to a federal court filing, the agents’ texts described migrants as “guats,” “wild ass shitbags,” “beaners,” and “subhuman.” There also were repeated discussions about setting the migrants afire.

Shortly after ProPublica’s story ran, the participants in the Facebook group began assiduously deleting their posts. It also shortly emerged that CBP officials and Border Patrol leadership had known about the secret group for up to three years. One former DHS official told Politico that CBP’s public affairs office monitored the group “as a source of intelligence” to see “what people are talking about.”

Over a year later, DHS fired four CBP agents for their comments in the group, and suspended about three dozen more without pay. However, the agency continued to withhold documents in the matter from congressional investigators, leading Congressman Carolyn Maloney, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform committee, to fire off a 17-page memo outlining how CBP had stonewalled their efforts to investigate the matter, as well as a pattern of downgraded consequences for the participants in the Facebook group.

“These documents include information about dozens of CBP employees who engaged in misconduct by participating in secret Facebook groups that shared racist, sexually violent, dehumanizing, and abhorrent material,” Maloney wrote. “They made these vile posts not only about immigrants—including a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande—but also about a Member of our Committee.”

Maloney added that “the limited information produced to the Committee shows that CBP significantly reduced penalties for numerous employees who they determined engaged in misconduct,” which included reducing three of the firings to suspensions, and cutting the length of 19 other suspensions. “In communications with the committee, the Trump Administration has expressed more concern about protecting the reputations of employees who made racist and sexually depraved posts than the wellbeing of the children and families they interact with on a daily basis,” she said.

In at least one instance, an extremist who worked within DHS later became a leading figure in a neo-Nazi terrorist movement. As Ben Makuch reported at Vice in February, Rinaldo Nazzaro, the founder and leader of The Base—an explicitly fascist organization devoted to terrorist acts against Americans that engages in paramilitary training, and has been linked to multiple arrests for a variety of violent crimes and plots—in fact worked at DHS as an intelligence analyst from 2004 to 2006. He also collected letters of warm commendation from multiple officials at DHS and the Marine Corps, and posted copies of them on Telegram.

Besides the enormity of the task, the Biden administration’s biggest challenge in rooting out extremists at DHS will almost certainly be the resistance that will arise within its agencies to do so effectively. In particular, the Border Patrol’s 16,500-member union already has established itself as highly politicized defenders of Trump and his border policies, having avidly campaigned on the ex-president’s behalf on social media and elsewhere. Its support included reiterating false claims about voter fraud, loud support for the pro-Trump caravans that attempted to run a Biden/Harris campaign bus off the road, and even QAnon-style conspiracy theories about “the widespread pedophilia in the government and in Hollywood.”

Union chief Art Del Cueto has used classic far-right talking points in describing the Biden administration. “We’re in trouble,” Del Cueto told listeners on his Green Room podcast. “He’s going to take away your guns and your ability to defend yourself.”

“DHS has been completely politicized,” former CBP commissioner Gil Kerlikowske told The Intercept. “CBP and ICE in particular.”


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