Top officials at US Customs and Border Patrol reportedly knew about a Facebook group in which current and former agents routinely posted derogatory, inflammatory, and sometimes violent memes years before the group became public knowledge following a report by A.C. Thompson at ProPublica. That group may also not be the only one of its kind, according to reporting that found a second, smaller, but similar Facebook group.
An investigation by ProPublica earlier this week revealed that some 9,500 border patrol agents were part of a secret Facebook group where they shared sexist and racist memes, joked about the deaths of migrants, and suggested that the now-famous photo of a man and toddler who drowned in the Rio Grande had been doctored.
Following publication of that story, a spokesperson for Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) told ProPublica that it would investigate the findings. But new reporting has found that top CBP officials were made aware of the group shortly after its creation in August 2016, and that officials even investigated its posts on at least one occasion.
According to Politico’s Ted Hesson and Cristiano Lima, who spoke to current and former officials at the Department of Homeland Security, CBP leadership was first made aware of the contents of the group — known as “I’m 10-15,” a reference to the code for “aliens in custody” — as early as 2016. The sources quoted did not know of any discipline that had been meted out to the participating members.
An anonymous CBP official told the Washington Post’s Reis Thebault and Nick Miroff the agency’s internal affairs unit looked into content from the group and “took disciplinary action,” although the source declined to detail what form the discipline took.
At least one post, which featured simulated sexual content, was brought to the attention of then Border Patrol chief and current acting CBP chief Mark Morgan, who has not commented on the group.
These reports seem to contradict the statements of other senior officials, who expressed surprise at the group’s existence and promised investigations into its origins and participants.
US Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said in a statement, “These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see — and expect — from our agents day in and day out. Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”
And the acting secretary of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, said he launched an investigation and will ensure “any employee found to have compromised the public’s trust in our law enforcement mission will be held accountable.”
Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, requested a formal investigation into how much officials knew about the group ahead of ProPublica’s reporting on Friday.
In a letter to the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, Thompson specifically said he is concerned about any knowledge McAleenan and Morgan may have had about the group, writing of the acting chief, “If accurate, this report calls into question Mr. Morgan’s fitness to hold any office in the United States government.”
Other, similar explicit CBP Facebook groups may exist
The I’m 10-15 group may not be the only Facebook group officials will need to investigate. On Friday, a second, smaller, but similar group was reported on by CNN’s Geneva Sands and Nick Valencia.
Screenshots of posts from that group, “The Real CBP Nation,” revealed content of a similar nature: racist and misogynistic images, manipulated images of sexual violence, and memes making light of conditions in migrant detention centers at the southern border, where recent reports have found that men, women and children face inadequate access to food, water, and basic hygiene.
Both groups seem to have repeatedly targeted Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who visited two border facilities earlier in the week alongside other lawmakers, just hours after the ProPublica investigation went live. One post in the larger group encouraged someone to throw a burrito at the Latina legislator during her tour.
The I’m 10-15 group was shut down shortly after the publication of the ProPublica investigation. According to CNN, Facebook has removed some content from that group. A CBP spokesperson told CNN The Real CBP Nation is also under investigation.
It is not clear if CBP knew about the existence of The Real CBP Nation previously. According to a private memo obtained by CNN, senior officials in 2018 warned employees not to participate in an offensive social media page that they had just discovered — but the memo does not identify the name of the group.
Disciplining agents participating in these groups could be difficult
These Facebook groups came as CBP and the US’ immigrant detention facilities face increased public and Congressional scrutiny due a viral photo of a father and daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande as well as a number of reports detailing widespread abuse and neglect at detention facilities. The Associated Press detailed one facility where young girls took care of babies who wore soiled clothes and no diapers without any adult supervision, for example.
In a statement immediately following ProPublica’s investigation, Customs and Border Protection chief Carla Provost said that the agency would be investigating the social media groups and would discipline employees who had participated in them.
Department of Homeland Security officials said on Tuesday that the agency’s internal watchdog office had launched an investigation into the posts.
Following the reporting on the second group, CBP spokesperson Matt Leas repeated to CNN that the agency would investigate “the posts to determine the facts.”
”If the investigation verifies that employees posted content in violation of CBP’s code of conduct, the findings will inform management decisions regarding appropriate disciplinary action,” he said.
Although CBP maintains an internal code of conduct that prohibits discrimination and harassment, civil servants also enjoy substantive free speech protections. This makes it unclear whether or how participants — some of whom seem to be retired — could be disciplined by the government.
The government … is obliged to protect federal employees’ right to address matters of public concern, and may punish them only if their speech interferes with the performance of their jobs.
“Typically, if people are expressing political views, that is considered to be protected speech,” [attorney Shannon] Farmer said. However, law enforcement officers who use racist or derogatory language may give the impression they won’t be able to perform their job without bias. “You really need to look at the very specific language that they’re using,” she said.
Should agents’ behavior be found to interfere with their ability to do their jobs, they could face a range of disciplinary actions, including anything from a formal reprimand to being fired.
Also at issue is how a number of the posts, particularly those that depict sexual violence, were allowed on Facebook, given that they would seem to violate the social media platform’s rules against sexual content and hate speech.
This issue was raised by House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying that the posts in I’m 10-15 group violated the company’s standards against hate speech, and called on the company to maintain records of the group and its posts — records that members began to scrub as early as Monday afternoon, according to the Intercept.
Facebook declined to say whether it would ban any of the users responsible for generating the content, but did say Tuesday it plans to fully participate with the federal investigation.