Brutality at the Borders: Refugees from Violence to Violence

On Friday evening, September 11, without any expectation of an outrageous reaction, I escort seven desperate refugees fleeing Europe to the U.S. Customs and Border at San Ysidro in California. I have little idea, prior to this decision, how much it will result in violence and total disregard of our group’s human rights. My principal motive is to help Syrian dissidents find a country where they will be free from persecution. Prior to this decision, I spend many days in Washington D.C. with administrators of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, who reiterate at each meeting how important it is to find a solution to the crisis facing Syrians escaping torment by multiple facets. Yet, it is virtually impossible for a Syrian to get a visitor visa to enter the United States and the refugee relocation waitlist takes several years for reunions with a family member. This small group of seven are unwelcomed in Denmark. They cannot get a visa to the United States but they can get one to enter into Mexico.

Resentment of immigrants is exacerbating among Danes, who believe their social benefits are being drained by an influx of refugees. The women in our group are physically attacked and their husbands beaten when trying to protect them. Another’s house is vandalized. Each household’s benefits are cut in half. Worst of all, they are afraid. Relatives in the US collect enough money to provide airfare to Mexico. I prepare asylum applications for each of them and travel to Tijuana to meet them. We are hopeful. We are approaching the border to the United States. This is the entrance into liberty and freedom from oppression. This is the promise of America – a land, a people, a way of life. Isn’t it?

Now we are at the gateway and things are not going as expected. The first border agent to receive us says, “You can’t drive in. Asylum applicants have to walk up to the border so come inside and drive back out and then send the refugees in, walking.” I tell her that we will not do this because, if they enter without inspection, they will be barred from returning for several years. I also ask her where the rule is that says they have to come walking. She has no answer and tells me that she must check with her supervisor and walks away. Twenty minutes later, she returns and tells us to go to the back of the CBP building so the the refugees can be processed. Once we arrive we are greeted by another agent who tells us that we are going to be escorted into the building and, according to procedures, we must be handcuffed from the parking lot until we reach the inside of the building. Once we are inside, the handcuffs will be removed.

He seems friendly until another group of agents come out of the building and up to our vehicle. His demeanor changes instantly.  A female agent begins to take command. She is ordering us to give her our cellphones and that there will be no picture-taking or recording. She stands at the door where I am sitting and sees my iPhone. She reaches inside and grabs for it. It is in her possession but she cannot unlock the phone without my cooperation. It has touch ID. I refuse and she is enraged. We are all ordered out of the van. Each person is handcuffed to another person. I am completely restrained. The others are sent ahead of me.  I ask the agent why am I being handcuffed. I see other people walking into the building unshackled. She responds, “You have to be processed.”  I tell the Border Patrol Agent that I am an American citizen and ask, “Why do I need to be processed?” The agent is not interested in giving me a reply. In fact, she is getting angry and begins shouting at me to walk faster. Since I am restrained behind my back,  she forcefully pushes me with one of her hands in an effort to offend me and perhaps speed up the process of getting me inside of the building. I explain to her that I have had surgery on my ankle and the incisions have not healed. She asks me precisely where. I say the tendon was rebuilt and I signal using my head and by raising my foot. She asks if I have medication to confirm it. I reply that I do. Instead of giving me any sort of consideration, she kicks me directly where I located the place of the surgical wound.

I am shocked and appalled. I am not unsure of how I am supposed to respond to her behavior.  I “cooperate” because she has all of the power and I have none. I see that this person has a different understanding of what the law allows her to do. She behaves as if her badge serves as a proxy for a system that allows excessive force and denies my right of self-protection. I remind the agent, again, that I am an American citizen and have a right to be here and to my civil rights, and I tell her she is violating my rights. I am calm but stubborn. It is more than apparent that she becomes increasingly impatient with the direction of my questioning.


The agent tells me, “Shut up. Why don’t you just shut up? You don’t have any right here!”
She opens the door of the building and I feel her boot press down on my foot with the force of her weight. I refuse to look at her. I ignore what I am sure for her is a significant moment. I refuse to acknowledge another officially deceitful designated product of American justice. She pushes me inside the door. She says, “You people, why are you here anyway?”
I hold back for a moment and look her in the eye. It was that statement that gave me pause: her assumption that people unlike her do not deserve the benefits she enjoys, and her belief that immigrants in the United States are getting more than they deserve. That was only one of the most disturbing things about her.

Once we enter the main building of the U.S. Customs and Border, the handcuffs are not taken off as promised by the first agent, who gave us an overview of the procedures. Agent Michel sees to that. After five hours, the cuffs still remain in place, hands behind my back. I ask for the restraints to be loosened and my request is denied. Michel does just the opposite, and tightens the metal shackles.

I am separated from the rest of the group for hours. Finally, it is my turn to be “processed.” I am taken to a special room that the others have not experienced. It is small and the walls are metal. Inside, two agents begin an intensive body search as another watches. The cuffs are removed. Agent Michel snatches my headscarf off and the pin stabs her in the finger. She is enraged. She curses me and my religion and pushes my head onto the wall. Next, she orders me to put my hands up high against the wall, and I do as instructed. She complains that my arms are not high enough and my legs are not spread far enough, and kicks my legs in an attempt to motivate me to open them wider. I cannot. I can barely think. I feel pain in my head and foot and I can barely stand.  The two agents in the room proceed to search me by lifting up my garments and undergarments at the request of Agent Michel. All of a sudden, she announces that she is off-duty, but she does not leave before asking me, “Have you learned a lesson?”


Assessing motives and separating them from happenstance cause and effect is difficult in these matters. As I search for one small rule of acceptable conduct here, I know there is none. Law and justice here, is just another American fiction. It is a clear case of religious racism and while acting under the color of authority It is the kind of That type of perversion in a category by itself. When an officer turns on those he or she is meant to protect, and uses significant power against law-abiding people who have a reasonable expectation to have faith in his or her judgment. It is a special type of betrayal that is consciously not conveyed in the United States Constitution or any theory of justice.  From 2010 to 2014 CBP agents shot and killed 28 people. Other charges against CBP agents included drug trafficking, theft, assaults, kidnapping and rape. The estimated number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has dropped by more than two million since 2006. Yet throwing money at CBP remains a way for Congress to boast of protecting borders and getting tough on immigration. The CBP agency continues to grow, with 2,000 new jobs listed in 2014.

How do we survive as a society if law enforcement is not accountable for its actions and those who govern are not willing to take responsibility? Respect for the law must begin with those charged with upholding it. From excessive use of force and shootings to peremptory denial of access to asylum, Border Patrol agents routinely violate the laws they are charged with upholding. I don’t see any real effort to change it forthcoming.

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