ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Residents along the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso and New Mexico face repeated verbal and physical abuse from U.S. Customs and Border Protection Customs officers, including accusations of being prostitutes and the seizure of their legal documents without cause, according to a complaint filed Tuesday by a coalition of advocacy groups.
In a complaint submitted to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General, advocates say officers used excessive force, verbal abuse, humiliating searches and intimidation to coerce individuals into surrendering their legal rights.
The complaint, filed on behalf of 13 people, also said the officers have harassed border crossers with legal documents and threatened retaliation when the residents promised to report the violations.
In one case, officers last year falsely accused Amanda Rodríguez Varela, 51, a women's right advocate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, of being a sex worker and suggested she has a sexually transmitted disease before detaining her at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso, the complaint said.
"The CBP officers threatened her with criminal charges for prostitution and belittled her work for gender equality. One said that her work was a 'waste of time'," documents said. The complaint said Varela was forced to sign an English-language document that officers later revised to say she admitted she was a prostitute — a claim she strongly denies.
In a 2014 case, the complaint said officers forced an eight-month pregnant Michelle Fierro, 25, to wait in car for six hours at the Santa Teresa, New Mexico, Port of Entry while her brother-in-law was interrogated. The brother-in-law had a valid visa but Fierro, a U.S. citizen, was denied water, food or the use of her cellphone, the complaint said.
"Fierro suffered from gestational diabetes and was later diagnosed by her doctor as being dehydrated as a result of the prolonged detention," the complaint said.
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General did not immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press.
According a statement on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's website, Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske is leading the agency toward a more transparent and accountable approach to enforcement and workforce integrity.
"At the direction of the Commissioner, CBP commissioned independent review of CBP complaints and discipline systems in September 2014 to improve the agency's accountability and transparency in these areas," the statement said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights and other groups in New Mexico and Texas want the allegations investigated.
"When unprofessional or downright cruel CBP officers humiliate, discriminate and physical or verbally abuse them, their mistreatment and lack of accountability offends American values of equality and justice," Cynthia Pompa, field organizer at the Regional Center for Border Rights, said.
Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/russell-contreras .