2019 Feature, Small Newsroom winner

‘Shocked and Humiliated’

Lawsuits Accuse Customs, Border Officers of Invasive Searches of Minors, Women

About the Project

Early last year, reporter Susan Ferriss of the Center for Public Integrity began a months-long struggle with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to obtain records related to claims of officer misconduct. After a protracted Freedom of Information (FOIA) battle, she gained access to a document suggesting a troubling pattern of false arrest accusations leading to court settlements.

But the data was sorely incomplete. It wasn’t until Ferriss reviewed U.S. Treasury Department records for claim settlements—and then matched settlements with court docket numbers we requested—that the Center began discovering the depth of how traumatic these incidents were for U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike.

Ferriss’ investigation, “Shocked and Humiliated,” revealed how federal agents at U.S. airports, at border crossings and in immigration detention were accused of gross misconduct and errors in judgment as they scrutinized people for hidden drugs or other contraband. Detention that began with officers exercising their considerable legal authority to search people led to vaginal probing, shackling, handcuffing, hours of interrogation and even transport to hospitals where officers watched as medical workers carried out body cavity probing and X-rays.

An African-American woman traveler was forcibly drugged, stripped and probed by hospital staff in a 24-hour ordeal that we broke down for readers in a timeline demonstrating how CBP abuse spiraled into an unconstitutional nightmare.

Ferriss uncovered 11 invasive-search legal claims, six of which resulted in government settlements totaling more than $1.2 million in payments to victims. Significant cases had never been revealed because victims were too traumatized to go public with complaints. And no reporters had scrutinized federal records to check for unreported cases. After an introductory section in the lead story, we broke down each individual account of abuse into digestible chapters, mindful of what it’s like to consume news on mobile devices. We also broke apart and illustrated chapters with screen shots of shocking excerpts from claims in the lawsuits.

Ferriss’ work was picked up by media nationally, including reprinted in the Washington Post, and abroad. Civil rights activists have used the pieces in efforts to ensure that federal immigration officers—a growing power—are kept in check and people’s constitutional rights are protected.

A resident of the Washington, D.C., metro area, a Nigerian immigrant, read Ferriss’ first report and decided to tell us about his own harrowing search. The Washington Post and other media outlets also picked up this follow.

Civil rights lawyers warned us that invasive searches are more common than the number of suits reflect because many victims are too powerless and afraid to file claims. But once we gained access to the records, we found that there were more shocking cases than imagined, which the public deserved to know about. We also found that U.S. attorneys representing officers were essentially hiding many disturbing rights violations by attempting to dismiss or quietly settle claims. And, we found that CBP engaged in a pattern of recalcitrance by refusing to disclose if officers involved in incidents were fired, disciplined or otherwise held accountable.