WASHINGTON — Dozens of Customs and Border Protection employees violated policies by posting offensive and unprofessional content on social media, including an anti-immigrant cartoon of children locked in kennels, according to a new government watchdog report.
The Homeland Security Department’s Office of Inspector General found that, from January 2016 through June 2019, CBP handled the cases of 83 employees who “posted or commented on inappropriate content on social media.”
The flagged cases included one instance in 2018 when an Office of Field Operations employee posted “a Valentine’s Day greeting from Adolf Hitler and anti-immigrant content” on a personal Instagram account. Later that year, another OFO employee posted anti-immigrant content on Twitter, including “a cartoon depicting children locked in kennels,” according to the report published Friday.
The inspector general also revealed the existence of a private Facebook group, called “Laredo Choir Practice,” where seven Border Patrol employees posted racist content.
A final agency decision issued as part of the Equal Employment Opportunity complaint process found the two supervisors who handled the seven employees’ cases were “ineffective and inappropriate” and that it appeared “management took very little initiative to address the racial harassment,” according to the OIG report.
A senior Border Patrol headquarters official ultimately disciplined four of these employees, the report said.
Of the 83 employees noted, 51 worked for U.S. Border Patrol, the division of CBP tasked with apprehending migrants who cross the U.S. border without authorization, among other tasks. Thirty of the cases involved employees with CBP’s Office of Field Operations, which oversees procedures at ports of entry along the border.
The other two cases involved employees with CBP’s Air and Marine Operations.
House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., said in a statement Friday she was “deeply troubled that the previous Administration may have allowed agents who posted racist and sexually violent material to continue working with vulnerable immigrants and children.”
She also noted the inspector general had not evaluated the level of discipline enacted against employees who violate social media policies.
“The Oversight Committee is continuing to investigate this critical issue to ensure there is full accountability for this unacceptable behavior,” Maloney said.
The watchdog’s investigation was launched in response to a July 2019 ProPublica report revealing the existence of a secret Facebook group named “I’m 10-15,” where CBP employees mocked migrants and made racist and sexist comments about Democratic lawmakers, including a vulgar drawing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
The Facebook group was named for Border Patrol’s numerical code for “aliens in custody.”
While 14 of the reported 83 cases stemmed from social media activity in that Facebook group, none of the cases was related to social media posts revealed in news reports, the inspector general said.
The remaining 69 cases were related to social media activity on other private Facebook groups and other personal social media accounts. In total, the flagged posts ranged from discriminatory content to “unprofessional conduct, unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information, and inappropriate political commentary,” the report said.
The watchdog found “no evidence” that agency leaders were aware of most of those cases. Officials at CBP headquarters were “generally not informed” of social media conduct violations, the report said, and were told of “one or two social media misconduct cases” during the time period reviewed.
According to the report, some senior leaders at Border Patrol were alerted to the “I’m 10-15” Facebook group’s existence as early as August 2016 but were not aware of the offensive posts — even though some agency leaders were members of the group.
But Border Patrol officials “could have done more” in response to these social media violations, the inspector general said.
Of the officials at CBP headquarters interviewed during the investigation, two told the watchdog agency that a Laredo, Texas, office official believed the racist posts should be covered by the employees’ right to free speech. Another described a “boys will be boys” culture at CBP.
The inspector general also took issue with some Border Patrol leaders’ stances on the social media policies, including by questioning their constitutionality, which the watchdog cautioned could undermine their force.
“These differing opinions and uncertainty about the legality of CBP policies could undermine CBP’s efforts to enforce the policies,” the report said.
The watchdog recommended the agency enforce its social media policies uniformly and ramp up training on social media practices, including training for new recruits and refresher courses for existing employees.
In response to a draft of the OIG report, Henry A. Moak Jr., CBP’s chief accountability officer, told the inspector general the agency “agrees completely” with those recommendations and with “the overarching theme concerning the importance of maintaining a culture of ethical behavior at all times.”
However, Moak pushed back on IG findings that agency leadership did not sufficiently penalize the infringing social media activity, insisting that leadership “took, and will continue to take, corrective action on any substantiated misconduct.”
A spokesperson for CBP didn’t immediately return a request for further comment Friday.
Story by Suzanne Monyak.