Retiring Border Patrol chief Carla Provost presided over one of Border Patrol’s most abusive and deadly periods – she does not get to rewrite history.
Provost became the head Border Patrol agent in April 2017, first as acting chief and then assumed the role permanently in August 2018. In her departing op-ed on CNN.com, Provost argues that she and Border Patrol did the best they could under the circumstances and tries to pass blame to Congress for any deficiencies. She both ignores the facts and fails to accept responsibility for her choices.
First, a bit of vital context when considering Provost's tenure as chief and call for more resources: The surge in apprehensions last year was well below historical highs. Provost’s Border Patrol was staffed with a record number of agents and, as part of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), pulled from a multi-billion dollar budget that has more than doubled since 2006.
Despite having more resources than at any previous time and facing a rise in border crossings made up of families and children seeking asylum — turning themselves in to agents — Provost’s Border Patrol consistently chose to participate in abuse and avoid accountability.
Provost’s agents implemented Trump’s family separation policy that resulted in thousands of separations despite knowing technical problems would plague reunification. Her boss, then CBP commissioner and later Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kevin McAleenan, co-authored a memo recommending family separations despite, and as the DHS inspector general later found, career CBP officials warning that family separations could not be tracked. Even after court rulings largely ended family separation, Provost’s agency continued to separate children from their parents by taking full advantage of claimed loopholes. Inflicting lifelong trauma on thousands of children and parents is Provost and McAleenan’s largest and most reprehensible CBP legacy.
Instead of exercising the authority to release asylum seekers, Provost chose to pack Border Patrol facilities with families and single adults in conditions that the Department of Homeland Security inspector general called “dangerous” and “an immediate risk to health and safety.” Provost also allowed horrific conditions at the Clint Border Patrol facilities to persist for months until outside inspectors discovered and exposed the atrocious deprivations children faced in Border Patrol’s custody.
With Provost at the helm of Border Patrol, children began dying in the agency’s facilities, after a decade during which not a single migrant died in CBP custody. Instead of bringing reforms to a detention system that unnecessarily detains these children and fails to provide them with proper medical and social services, Provost and McAleenan used this tragedies — one of which McAleenan withheld from Congress, claiming he didn’t want to politicize it — in order to further the administration’s anti-immigrant agenda and successfully scare Congress into spending billions more on enforcement resources.
Provost’s term was also marked by lies and omissions when it came to accountability for Border Patrol abuses. It took a bystander video for Border Patrol to admit the facts surrounding the shooting death of Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez, and next to no progress has been made on deploying body cameras as tools of accountability. And only after media reports did Provost admit she was a member of the Border Patrol Facebook group, replete with agents posting racist and sexually violent memes, later claiming she was “unaware” of its content.
Provost consistently failed to ensure internal discipline for even the most egregious abuses by her agents. This abdication of leadership was markedly on display when she allowed a senior Border Patrol agent charged with kidnapping and raping a junior agent to retire without facing any internal discipline measures.
Provost’s time leading Border Patrol was despicable by any measure. Despite the symbolic importance of her role as the first female chief, and her prior post in internal affairs, she did not confront toxic agency culture including sexual abuse and discrimination that has kept female Border Patrol agents at the lowest representation (5%) of any federal law enforcement. Her attempts to side-step reality and frame Congress as the culprit for her leadership failure is par for the course at CBP, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency — a rogue agency defined by an ever-persistent failure to hold itself accountable.
Congress should step in with aggressive oversight. When McAleenan stepped down as DHS secretary last year, the widely respected chair of the House Homeland Security Committee called him “a consummate professional.” We respectfully disagree: it was the height of cruel, illegal, and unprofessional behavior for him and Provost to recommend and implement family separations. Every penny spent on Provost’s retirement plaques and parties should have gone to these children’s trauma counseling.
Congress must not forget these abuses: CBP’s funding should be reduced, and fundamental reforms enacted along with leadership changes made to hold Border Patrol accountable, protect people in CBP custody, and uphold the rights of border communities and migrants alike. Border Patrol’s legacy of abuse and impunity are otherwise sure to persist well beyond Provost’s departure.