U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) plans to destroy thousands of records documenting abuse and misconduct by its agents. The agency has requested that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) approve the destruction of complaints–but over 100 organizations opposed this decision citing mounting evidence of CBP lack of accountability.

Under the Federal Records Act, NARA approves the destruction of records if it determines they lack “sufficient administrative, legal, research, or other value to warrant their continued preservation by the Government.”

On July 9,  NARA authorized CBP to permanently destroy records related to civil rights complaints against the agency, administrative and criminal investigations into CBP officials’ conduct, and records related to Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) allegations.

The large and diverse coalition opposing the measure argued that the documents are critical to evaluating patterns of abuse and misconduct within the agency, breakdowns within CBP’s complaint procedures, as well as CBP’s failure to discipline officials.

CBP has not effectively provided oversight and accountability for abuse and misconduct by agency officials. Data obtained by the American Immigration Council in 2017 revealed that the agency took “no action” in 95.9 percent of complaints made against agents including verbal abuse, theft of property, and physical assault, over a three year-period.

The accountability mechanisms also are shrouded in secrecy. A Cato Institute study found it was:

“virtually impossible to assess the extent of corruption or misconduct in U.S. Customs and Border Protection . . . because most publicly available information [was] incomplete or inconsistent.”

These records have long-term value to legislators, advocates, researchers, and historians—contrary to NARA’s assessment. In particular, this primary source of information is critical to historians of border enforcement, who are increasingly paying attention to “the interaction of immigrants with officials and the ways local agent activity shape immigration policy and law.”

The widely documented failures of DHS oversight mechanisms—as well as the demonstrated historical significance of the records—strongly support permanently retaining the records.

Efforts to prevent the destruction of government abuse and misconduct is a reminder, as the Washington Post’s slogan says, that “democracy dies in darkness” without the intervention of civil society to hold the government accountable. Preventing future historians from reckoning with a large enforcement agency’s civil rights abuses and misconduct is an erasure of history and undemocratic.