A U.S. Border Patrol agent parks in the Sunland Park area, an area commonly used for human smuggling. (Claudia Tristán/El Paso Matters)

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the ACLU of New Mexico on Thursday demanded that U.S. Customs and Border Protection investigate an Aug. 3 crash, when a migrant smuggler lost control of a vehicle while evading a Border Patrol checkpoint. 

The CBP press release said the driver caused “a death and injury to ejected passengers” during the crash, but the ACLU questioned that explanation and has asked the law enforcement agency to publicly disclose its vehicle pursuit policy, something immigrant advocates and lawmakers have repeatedly called for in recent years. 

“There’s a very disturbing pattern of deadly Border Patrol chases, particularly it seems here in the El Paso sector,” said Shaw Drake, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas and one of the letter’s authors. 

“The agency has not been fully forthcoming in the details surrounding their officers’ actions in the crash,” Drake said. “It’s unclear from (the CBP press release) whether the officers were immediately behind the vehicle when it crashed or if they took any other maneuver to try and stop the vehicle when it crashed.”

CBP spokesperson Roger Maier only gave limited information about the officers’ actions and whereabouts immediately before the crash.

“The (Border Patrol press release) also includes the following: “the BPA (Border Patrol agent) activated his emergency equipment, which does address your question to a degree,” he said to El Paso Matters in an email. When asked what activating emergency equipment entails, he said it “generally refers to flashing lights/light bar and such,” though did not clarify if that’s what was used on Aug. 3.

It’s not the first time the ACLU has asked for information related to vehicle fatalities that involved Border Patrol pursuits. But the civil rights groups said the previous requests yielded few results.  

Last summer, multiple eyewitnesses said that Border Patrol was chasing a vehicle immediately before it crashed in downtown El Paso. That crash, which resulted in the deaths of seven people, including four El Paso teens, also prompted the ACLU to demand an investigation into Border Patrol’s conduct. 

Friends of the victims in the June 2020 crash gather at the site of the accident on Paisano to mourn. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“We’ve never received information back on our FOIA requests or our Public Information Act requests for further information surrounding that crash,” Drake said. 

Maier said the investigation into the June 2020 crash is still open. 

In June, a Border Patrol chase preceded a crash in El Paso’s Upper Valley. In May, another pursuit by Border Patrol was linked to a crash on Mesa Street.

A 2019 investigation by ProPublica tracked a trend of dangerous Border Patrol chases, analyzing tactics that Border Patrol agents often use that escalates the potential lethality of the situation. 

“Border Patrol is the nation’s largest law enforcement agency and is completely out of step with policing norms across the country in this area particularly,” Drake said. “Nearly every major local law enforcement agency across the nation releases some version of it’s vehicle pursuit policy for public scrutiny.”

He said the lack of a publicly available policy means that it’s impossible for the ACLU and other experts to know whether the agency is complying with their policy, and to know whether that policy aligns with best policing practices. 

When asked why CBP has not disclosed their vehicle pursuit policy, Maier said, “if something is addressed to CBP leadership they will respond directly to the party making the request.”

Cover photo: A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle in the Sunland Park area, an area commonly used for human smuggling. (Claudia Tristán/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.