Leadership Failures Allowed Hostile Work Environment to Persist Within DHS, Watchdog Finds

May 17, 2021
In The News

Senior leaders at Customs and Border Protection failed to address sexist, racist and otherwise bigoted social media activity by their employees in recent years, according to a new report, which allowed a hostile environment to fester in the workplace. 

CBP found more than 80 employees who made inappropriate posts or comments on social media from 2016 through mid-2019, according to the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general. Agency leaders frequently failed to take the matters seriously or enact discipline, including cases in which the IG found “management took very little initiative” to address “racial harassment.” 

Just 14 of the 83 cases of inappropriate social media behavior involved the now infamous Facebook group “I’m 10-15,” in which current and former Border Patrol agents discussed disrupting a congressional visit to an agency facility, made jokes about the deaths of migrants and posted disparaging images of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., among other offensive material that ProPublica first exposed in 2019. The other posts took place in additional private groups or on personal feeds. Most of the offending employees were within Border Patrol, where the IG said leadership took little action upon learning of some of the incidents. 

CBP’s Office of Field Operations, on the other hand, issued guidance on social media policy after word of some of the cases involving its employees made its way to headquarters. Incidents within the field operations office included an employee posting a Valentine’s Day message from Adolf Hitler with anti-immigrant messages and a cartoon with immigrant children in kennels. 

Top management officials first became aware of the “I’m 10-15” group in 2016, the IG found, leading to a field manager disciplining its creator. Participation in the group continued, however, and in 2017 a panel recommended seven employees for discipline for their posts. The panel also recommended discipline for two supervisors who “did not address a hostile work environment established” by those seven agents. CBP ultimately punished just four of those involved. 

All 1,800 Border Patrol employees in the Laredo, Texas, sector, where several employees who posted offensive content were located, were subject to 16 hours of training on CBP’s social media policy. Those leading the training, however, said employees did not take it seriously and voiced skepticism that anything would change. The Laredo sector chief at the time also made clear his frustration that all of his employees had to participate in the training. 

One manager told the IG there was a “pervasive culture in CBP” in which “boys will be boys.” The manager criticized agency leadership for failing to take stronger action to reverse that sentiment. In general, the IG found, Border Patrol officials “could have done more” to address the environment the social media posts had created. Some officials told the IG that the agency’s social media policy is unconstitutional, while one manager said the posts on the “I’m 10-15” Facebook page were appropriate. Such lingering attitudes will “undermine CBP’s enforcement” of its policies, the IG said. 

All of the 83 incidents CBP had identified occurred prior to media reports about the Facebook page and none of them involved specific posts made public in those articles. The IG found no evidence that senior leaders, even those in the group, knew of its offensive content. 

All told, CBP investigators verified 107 allegations of improper involvement with the “I’m 10-15” group. It formed a discipline review board and has fired four employees, suspended 36 and otherwise punished 25. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said her panel will continue to provide oversight on the issue. 

“I am deeply troubled that the previous administration may have allowed agents who posted racist and sexually violent material to continue working with vulnerable immigrants and children,” Maloney said. “The inspector general’s report did not evaluate the discipline assessed against these employees, and the Oversight Committee is continuing to investigate this critical issue to ensure there is full accountability for this unacceptable behavior.”

President Biden previously announced he would seek internal probes at DHS, proposing a 22% surge in funding at both CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Offices of Professional Responsibility as part of his fiscal 2022 budget request. The money would go toward ensuring proper investigations of complaints lodged against their workforces, including “those related to white supremacy or ideological and non-ideological beliefs.” DHS Secretary Ali Mayorkas has also launched an investigation into the department's own workforce to root out “domestic violent extremism.”

In comments to the IG, CBP defended its response to the “I’m 10-15” group and noted actions it has taken in other cases. Still, the IG said top leadership at the agency typically did not act until it was forced to do so. CBP agreed to ensure uniform application of its social media policies and to train CBP personnel on those rules upon starting their jobs and again each year. 

Despite its pushback, CBP agreed with "the overarching theme concerning the importance of maintaining a culture of ethical behavior at all times," said Henry Moak, CBP's chief accountability officer.