At least 62 current federal border agents have joined private Facebook groups and other social media pages that included obscene images of Hispanic lawmakers and threats to members of Congress, internal investigators said Monday.
In all, 70 current and former Customs and Border Protection employees were identified as members of the groups, officials from the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility said.
Investigators are examining inappropriate images, memes and comments in multiple Facebook groups, said Matthew Klein, a Customs and Border Protection assistant commissioner. Additional agents may be identified later, he said, as investigators continue to gather evidence.
To be clear, the expectations of professional conduct don’t end at the end of the shift,” Klein told journalists. “Those are our expectations of our employees.”
Border Patrol officials will decide how to discipline current agents — which could mean losing their vacation days or losing their jobs — after they receive evidence from the internal investigators.
Called “I’m 10-15” — a law enforcement code for unauthorized immigrants in custody — the first secret Facebook group was revealed two weeks ago by the investigative news site ProPublica as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and other Democratic lawmakers toured overflowing Border Patrol facilities in Texas.
The closed group included posts questioning whether a photograph of a dead migrant father and child was staged and depicting offensively doctored images of Ocasio-Cortez. Last week, The Intercept reported that Carla Provost, the Border Patrol’s chief, was among the Facebook group’s members.
Provost condemned the group as “inappropriate” after it was revealed, and Ocasio-Cortez described Customs and Border Protection as a “rogue agency.” The Democratic lawmaker last week told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that an agent tried to take a photograph of her while she toured a facility.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, described the Facebook posts as “racist and misogynist” during a Monday hearing on overcrowded Border Patrol facilities.
“Not only did CBP leadership know about this group, it now appears that the chief of the Border Patrol herself was a member,” Nadler said in his opening remarks. “This is the context in which we must consider the horrific conditions in CBP facilities.”
Talking with journalists on Monday, Klein declined to say if Provost was one of the 62 current employees identified as a member of the “10-15” group.
Initially, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general was asked to investigate the Facebook page, but it referred the case to Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the department. The department’s acting inspector general, Jennifer L. Costello, said last week that her office would investigate whether top Customs and Border Protection officials took appropriate action against employees who were members of the social media groups.
On Monday, Klein said 64 of the identified current and former agents were connected to the “I’m 10-15,” group, which had about 9,500 members. Six others were members of at least one other group.
“Messages posted on a private page that are discriminatory or harassing are not protected and violate standards of conduct,” Klein said. Failing to report misconduct is also a violation, he said, but he added that membership of the Facebook group alone would not automatically compel punishment.
He said investigators were still examining who was active on the page and who knew about the insulting comments.
From January 2016 to last month, 80 Customs and Border Protection employees have been investigated for inappropriate posts on social media websites, Klein said.
Pressed on why they did not investigate the “10-15” group earlier, Klein said Customs and Border Protection “didn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that there were other groups.”
In cases that were brought to the attention of internal watchdogs, “we did conduct an investigation,” Klein said.