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  • Human Rights Research Center

Human Rights Abuses on the U.S.-Mexico Border

January 25, 2024


Over the past several decades, the southern US border has become a bipartisan issue with some administrations calling to construct a physical border wall to separate the United States from Mexico. Previous administrations have cracked down on border crossings and immigration in general, implementing restrictive policies and bans. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, former President Donald Trump invoked Title 42, resulting in the closure of the border to asylum seekers and the expulsion of migrants attempting to enter the U.S. back into their home countries. Since the pandemic began, over 1.8 million expulsions under Title 42 have been carried out (American Immigration Council, 2023). The policy aimed to close the border in order to reduce the transmission of coronavirus, however, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expressed opposition to Title 42 arguing that there was no public health rationale to support it (American Immigration Council, 2023).

Every year, millions of people flee their countries seeking asylum by crossing into the United States through the US-Mexico border. However, their challenges persist beyond this journey. The border itself stands as the most perilous migration land route globally, witnessing 686 deaths and disappearances of migrants in 2022 alone. Although, the actual figures are likely to be higher due to underreporting, stemming from the lack of data from official sources (IOM, 2023). Moreover, reports on abuses committed at immigration detention centers have caught media attention over the past several years with many demanding that offenders of these abuses be held accountable, and calling for humane treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. This article is the second in a series on migration that examines migratory issues in the Americas. Furthermore, this article will discuss abuses that migrants and asylum-seekers face after crossing the US-Mexico border.

Background Information

In response to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was created in 2003, as a part of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). ICE is further broken down into three major offices: Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) and Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA). ERO is the best known branch of ICE, which is responsible for arrests, detainments, and deportations of unauthorized migrants already in the United States (Nixon and Qiu, 2018). One of the critiques of these detention centers is its use of for-profit facilities. In the past two years, 90.8 percent of people detained in ICE custody each day are held in detention centers owned or operated by private prison corporations (Cho, 2023). Due to the reliance of these for-profit facilities, private prison corporations such as GEO Group, CoreCivic, and LaSalle Corrections have made billions of dollars from ICE detention contracts in the past two decades.

Above is a map of all ICE detention centers in the US. For more information, Freedom for Immigrants has an interactive map with different categories of information of the detention centers.

Reports of Abuse

Reports of abuses committed at these facilities are seldom made public. It wasn't until NPR (National Public Radio) filed a lawsuit to make these reports public that this situation changed (Dreisbach, 2023). Immigration detention is primarily for holding people awaiting adjudication of their immigration cases. These may include immigrants apprehended at the border who are seeking asylum or people who entered the U.S. illegally and whom the government wants to deport or deems a public safety risk (Dreisbach, 2023). However, media coverage and controversies surrounding abuses occurring in ICE detention centers across the United States have increased since 2018. Some of the violations include: physical violence, withholding of food and medicine, and racial profiling. Inadequate medical and mental health care is also common in these detention centers due to the frequency that detainees are transferred between facilities. Common abuses were: detained individuals being transferred without their complete medical histories, an excessive number of patients for the available staff, and frequently ignoring medical care for migrants (Martinez and Schwellenbach, 2023). Due to the lawsuit brought by NPR, these abuses were made public to shed light on what is occurring in these detention facilities.

Additionally, reports of sexual assault are shockingly high in these detention centers. Freedom for Immigrants (2018) found that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) received over 30,000 complaints of physical abuse or sexual assault against agents in DHS between 2010 and 2016 with less than one percent of these cases investigated. Unfortunately, these crimes are common, resulting in a backlog of cases, with some being open for more than five years (Martinez and Schwellenbach, 2023). Recently, several immigrants’ rights organizations filed a complaint against the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) for violations of custody standards. For months, asylum seekers have been forced to wait outdoors for hours, sometimes days, between sections of the San Diego border walls and other open-air sites in the Jacumba desert (IRAP, 2023). Moreover, there are not enough agents to process the number of migrants and asylum-seekers coming through the US-Mexico border creating a bottleneck effect.


Bringing media attention to issues in ICE detention centers and immigration policies will continue to push for better rights for migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. A notable instance is the abolishment of Title 42, which faced significant backlash and criticism, ultimately leading to its overturn by a federal judge in May 2023 (Isacson, 2023). The treatment of asylum-seekers, migrants, and refugees in these detention centers have caused outrage with some calling to abolish ICE. While the likelihood of ICE being abolished is unlikely, holding those accountable for committing abuses should be investigated thoroughly and victims must receive justice in a timely manner. The federal government, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and local governments need to work together to improve the living conditions for those seeking asylum in the United States. Policies regarding migration and the US border are gradually evolving amid a contentious issue, where Democrats and Republicans are in conflict on how to move forward, resulting in ongoing stalemates.

For more information, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has a regularly updated database on the abuses committed by Customs and Border Protection.



  • Adjudication- Refers to the legal process of resolving a dispute or deciding a case.

  • Asylum seeker- A person who has left their home country as a political refugee and is seeking asylum in another.

  • Bipartisan- Involving the agreement or cooperation of two political parties that usually oppose each other's policies.

  • Migrant- A person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or

  • better living conditions.




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