Immigrant rights groups across the United States have condemned the killing of a young unarmed Guatemalan woman who was shot by a border patrol agent in Texas.
The woman, identified as 20-year-old Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzales, was shot in the head by a Customs Border Police (CBP) agent on Wednesday in Rio Bravo, Texas, close to the border with Mexico.
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According to local media, quoting Gonzales’ family, the young woman was travelling to the US from a small village in Guatemala to find work to pay for her education.
Her death has enraged immigrant rights organisations who say under US President Donald Trump, border agents like the CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are operating with impunity and a lack of accountability in their communities.
“Congress needs to stop this madness. They have the power to put an end to these agencies targeting our communities,” Cristina Jimenez, Executive Director of United We Dream, a youth-led immigrant network based in New York, said.
“We have been pointing out what these agencies have been doing but it had to get so bad before people pay attention,” Jimenez told Al Jazeera.
The details surrounding the incident in Rio Bravo remain unclear.
The CBP first said in a statement on Wednesday that a border patrol agent was responding to “a report of illegal activity in Rio Bravo”.
“Initial reports indicate that as the agent attempted to apprehend the group, he came under attack by multiple subjects using blunt objects,” the statement read.
On Friday, the CPB released an updated statement, saying the agent was “allegedly assaulted”. It did not mention the use of “blunt objects”.
According to the new statement: “The group ignored his (the agent’s) verbal commands and instead rushed him.” Three Guatemalan men were subsequently apprehended, the statement said.
A spokesperson for CBP declined to offer further comment to Al Jazeera, citing the ongoing investigation by the FBI and Texas Rangers. The agent involved in the incident has been placed on administrative leave, according to the CBP, citing its policy.
According to local media in Guatemala, Gonzalez was an indigenous Maya-Mam woman who had graduated from a forensic accounting programme in 2016. Her family said she was going to the US to find work as they did not have enough money for her to continue her studies.
Say her name: Claudia Patricia Gómez González. She was somebody. She mattered. She had people who loved her on both sides of the border.
She was murdered by Border Patrol on Wednesday at the Texas border.
Rest in power. pic.twitter.com/BNvy7KE2dm
— Movimiento Cosecha (@CosechaMovement) May 25, 2018
Marta Martinez, who saw the young woman lying in a pool of blood and dirt in an empty grass verge just outside her house, said she had not heard any screaming that would have suggested a confrontation before the shooting.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Martinez is heard on a video posted on Facebook telling the CBP officers at the scene: “Why do you mistreat them?” Why did you shoot the girl? You killed her! They killed the girl! She’s dead.”
Trump ‘dehumanises’ immigrants
Wednesday’s killing comes as Trump renewed calls for tougher border security, including adding 5,000 more border agents and the deployment of the National Guard to the border.
Immigration reform has been a pivotal feature of Trump’s election campaign.
Shortly after taking office in January last year, Trump signed an executive order, giving ICE and other law enforcement agencies expanded powers to focus on most undocumented immigrants, including those with no criminal record.
Trump has also repeatedly denigrated Mexicans, Central Americans and Muslims, imposed a ban on citizens of several Muslim-majority countries, described some African countries as “s***hole countries“, and promised to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.
Earlier this month, Trump referred to some people deported from the US as “animals” during a roundtable on immigration. Trump has since defended his remarks, saying he was referring to members of the MS-13 gang.
“This administration is trying to dehumanise and criminalise immigrants to such an extent that they are publicly calling them animals, and so the rhetoric is so dangerous and dehumanising that they want to justify the actions of mass deportation,” Jimenez said.
ICE arrested more than 143,000 people in 2017 – a 30 percent rise from 2016, according to Pew Research Center.
“Now, you see ICE agents targeting families, separating children from their parents,” Jimenez added.
“They are doing things they didn’t do before. You have agents today stopping people on the streets, going to places of worship and schools; you’re seeing agents everywhere now.”
Echoing Jimenez’s sentiments, the Southern Border Community Coalition released a statement, calling for accountability from those managing the border.
“For far too long, Border Patrol agents have terrorised our communities, leaving behind a trail of death and abuse without any meaningful accountability,” the group said.
Karina Alvarez, the founder of Laredo Immigrant Alliance, said Trump’s rhetoric on migrants had emboldened agents in border towns.
“He was describing us the other day as animals and look now, they shoot us like animals,” Alvarez told Al Jazeera.
History of abuse
Wednesday’s incident comes just days after Border Patrol agencies faced new allegations of abuse of undocumented migrants in towns close to the Mexico border during the administration of President Barack Obama.
The report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School found that “officials regularly use force on children when such force is not objectively reasonable”. It also found that agents used tasers even when the children were not resisting and verbally abused them, including issuing death threats.
The report detailed complaints filed against CBP between 2009-2014.
In one complaint, a 16-year-old boy described how an agent flung him down and kicked his head into the ground with his boot. In another incident, a 13-year-old boy was held and kicked in the shins. Then, there were incidents of sexual abuse. According to the report, agents forced a 16-year-old girl to spread her legs and touched her private parts.
“This seems to be a long-term issue with regards to lack of accountability and impunity with the agents,” Claudia Flores, Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, said.
The CBP called the allegations in the report “unfounded” and “baseless”.
Mitra Ebadolahi of the ACLU said in a statement that the report’s findings showed “a pattern of physical, sexual and emotional abuse by Customs and Border Protection officials against child immigrant that existed long before President Trump emboldened the agency by unleashing its officers to enforce his draconian immigration policies.”
She added: “If the abuses were this bad under Obama when the Border Patrol described itself as constrained, imagine how it must be now under Trump, who vowed to unleash the agents to do their jobs.”