The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights announced Thursday that ProPublica’s “Inside the Border Patrol” series won the RFK Journalism Award in the new media category.
For more than a decade, the Border Patrol — the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency with some 20,000 agents — has been dogged by allegations of corruption and violence by poorly screened agents. Then, in 2017, an unprecedented surge of thousands of desperate migrants arrived at the southern border. Suddenly, agents were tasked not only with apprehending and screening migrants, but for the first time with separating families, guarding toddlers and caring for the sick, often on their own with scant training and oversight. Yet even as the agency’s role and power expanded, the Border Patrol remained closed to public scrutiny, even from Congress.
For “Inside the Border Patrol,” a team of ProPublica reporters dug into the agency from different angles, developing sources that gave them access not only to a deeply troubling culture that had been allowed to fester virtually unchecked, but to agents breaking under the strain of their new reality.
Perhaps the most revealing, and disturbing, insight into the agency came last July just before a group of Latino members of Congress were to tour a Texas detention center. ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson obtained screenshots from a secret Facebook group of some 9,500 current and former Border Patrol agents that showed that several agents and at least one supervisor had joked about the death of migrants, called Latina lawmakers “hoes” and “scum buckets” and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant. Among those in the group: Carla Provost, the agency’s chief.
The story exploded in the media. Joaquin Castro, head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the story “confirms some of the worst criticisms of Customs and Border Protection. These are clearly agents who are desensitized to the point of being dangerous to migrants and their co-workers.” The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General quickly launched an inquiry, and within weeks, Customs and Border Protection had opened investigations into 62 current and eight former employees.
ProPublica followed up with stories that further explored the agency’s culture. Thompson dove deep into the case of a Border Patrol agent caught on camera ramming his Ford truck into a Guatemalan migrant to document that the agent had a well-known pattern of excessive force and overt racism.
Reporters also sought to capture what it was like for agents assigned to work in detention centers some had likened to concentration camps. At the height of the influx last summer, ProPublica senior reporter Ginger Thompson convinced one agent to speak candidly and at length. His chilling assessment: “Somewhere down the line people just accepted what’s going on as normal.”
Other stories by reporter Melissa del Bosque showed how the agency was allowed to accuse migrants of being criminals without having to reveal the evidence for the claim or where it came from, and she revealed the agency’s use of secretive, questionable gang databases to deny asylum.
Finally, reporters Robert Moore, Susan Schmidt and Maryam Jameel investigated the Border Patrol’s account of the controversial death of a 16-year-old migrant boy in its custody. The agency said the boy had died from the flu and had been discovered by a staffer. ProPublica filed a public records request with local police to obtain hours of surveillance video that showed the teenager collapsing and dying over several hours, while no one offered aid. The boy’s body was finally discovered by his roommate. The video starkly contradicted the Border Patrol’s public account and the assertions of agents that they’d checked on the boy three times during the night. In addition to the article, video journalists Lucas Waldron and Katie Campbell produced a visual investigation of the death.
Doctors who advocate for immigrants called the video evidence of medical neglect. Members of Congress, including House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, promised further investigation.
Reporter Dara Lind and senior data reporter Jeff Ernsthausen also contributed to the series. Taken together, the stories reveal an agency amassing power and increasing control over the lives of vulnerable migrant families, even as its own culture shows many of its agents are the last people who should be trusted with the job.