March 12, 2017
WASHINGTON — President Trump has vowed a hiring surge of 10,000 immigration and customs officers to accelerate the deportation of unauthorized immigrants. But the aggressive pace he has laid out risks adding to the ranks of rogue agents who have been charged with abusing immigrants.
Over the past decade, dozens of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and contract guards responsible for the detention and removal of undocumented immigrants have been arrested and charged with beating people, smuggling drugs into detention centers, having sex with detainees and accepting bribes to delay or stop deportations, agency documents and court records show.
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One agent took pictures of himself having sex with a minor in a foreign country after dropping off deportees. In another case, an ICE lawyer pretending to be an immigration judge took bribes to remove official documents from the files of people awaiting deportation.
These officials make up a small fraction of the work force at the agency, now comprising almost 20,000 people, but former Homeland Security officials and human rights workers say that even a few bad officers can be a problem because they hold such power over a vulnerable population.
John Roth, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, told a Senate committee in February that the agency would “face a number of challenges” in executing Mr. Trump’s executive orders because it had “inadequate systems to track and process applicants.”
Mr. Roth said his office was conducting an audit of previous hiring surges to help the agency avoid practices that may have led to corruption and misconduct by staff members.
Human rights activists expressed similar worries about a hiring wave.
“Given the things that have been documented in the past — beatings, sexual assaults and other abuses — it doesn’t seem like they have much oversight of the people they have now. And they want to add more?” said Justin Mazzola, deputy director of research for Amnesty International in New York.
Mr. Mazzola’s concern is borne out in a number of cases in which ICE employees have been accused or convicted of abuse.
In Philadelphia, Justin Ford pleaded guilty to stealing money from undocumented immigrants being processed for removal.
In New Jersey, Arnaldo Echevarria was convicted on charges of extracting bribes from people facing deportation.
And in Detroit, Clifton Divers was arrested after the authorities said he had provided false information to federal immigration authorities in order to delay the deportation of several immigrants facing removal.
Mr. Ford and Mr. Echevarria were deportation officers who supervised unauthorized immigrants. Mr. Divers is a special agent with ICE Homeland Security Investigations who prosecutors say took $5,000 from an immigration attorney to put off several deportations by claiming that the immigrants had information about crimes.
John F. Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary, has directed the agency to “take all appropriate action to expeditiously hire 10,000 agents and officers,” as sought by Mr. Trump in his executive order.
Mr. Kelly said the agency would maintain a rigorous hiring process and add personnel to ensure that it would not be compromised.
“I will not skimp on the training and the standards,” he told a congressional panel last month.
According to immigration and customs officials, agents and deportation officers undergo pre-employment security checks and full background investigations, and then re-investigations every five or 10 years, depending on the sensitivity of the position.
Still, some former Homeland Security officials said they worried that in an effort to accelerate hiring, the agency would be tempted to lower its standards. Leaked documents outlining plans to beef up a sister agency, the Border Patrol, first reported in Foreign Policy magazine, show that Customs and Border Protection officials are considering waiving polygraph tests for some applicants and applying less stringent background checks to speed the hiring of 5,000 agents.
ICE does not administer lie detector test to applicants. In 2016, the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility sought permission to use pre-employment polygraph examinations for law enforcement applicants similar to those used by the Border Patrol and Secret Service, but the proposal stalled.
James Tomsheck, a former assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said that while polygraph tests were not foolproof, they could help weed out applicants susceptible to corruption.
“What needs to be implemented are protocols for keeping bad people from getting in in the first place,” he said. “Background checks alone are insufficient at vetting people.”
Background checks failed to find problems with Mr. Ford, who authorities said was facing financial problems when he stole from the vulnerable immigrants he transported to detention facilities in New Jersey. He was arrested in March 2015 by a Philadelphia Police Department SWAT team as he dropped off an undercover agent at a detention facility.
Mr. Ford, who told the authorities that he had taken only a few hundred dollars from detainees “a couple of times,” pleaded guilty in June 2015.
Mr. Echevarria, who was indicted last year, accepted $75,000 in bribes in exchange for employment authorization documents for several immigrants in the country illegally, the authorities said. Prosecutors said he also had demanded sex in at least one instance. From 2012 to 2014, they said, Mr. Echevarria made false statements to immigration authorities about the status of the undocumented immigrants under his supervision.
Mr. Divers, who is awaiting trial, was arrested in October. According to court records, between 2009 and 2015 he took thousands of dollars from Charles T. Busse, an immigration attorney, to help with deportation cases.
In one instance, Mr. Divers was accused of sending an email to officials at Homeland Security that falsely said one of Mr. Busse’s clients was assisting in a criminal investigation. As a result of Mr. Divers’s email, the client was not deported, court records show.
In another case, Mr. Divers arranged for a one-year deportation deferral for another client of Mr. Busse, a Mexican man, after providing false information to ICE officials, according to court documents.
“Some of these guys don’t have any respect for the people they are rounding up or deporting,” said an ICE deportation officer, who requested anonymity because he fears losing his job for speaking out publicly. “I’ve heard agents refer to all Somalis as ‘pirates’ and other ethnic slurs. Others are just hostile to aliens being here breaking the law. It’s not our job to judge.”
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