Lawmakers File a Bipartisan Bill on CBP Oversight

*Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a statement from the National Treasury Employees Union, which includes CBP officers.

Border lawmakers from opposing parties introduced legislation this week that would increase the monitoring of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s use-of-force practices and create a uniform complaint process to address allegations of misconduct by agency officials.

U.S. Reps. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, and Steve Pearce, R-N.M., filed the Border Accountability and Community Engagement bill. The proposal comes after a New Mexico woman was made to undergo a rectal and vaginal probe in El Paso in 2012 and in the wake of a recent suicide by a Border Patrol agent in South Texas, who while on duty allegedly attacked an undocumented Central American woman, her teenage daughter and another teenage girl. Law enforcement officials said the woman was raped and her wrists were slashed. The daughter was sexually assaulted, and the other girl was kidnapped and taken to the agent's home, investigators added.

The measure introduced on Tuesday would establish an oversight commission with subpoena authority that would review CBP’s “search and seizure, personnel training, and community engagement policies."

O’Rourke has conceded that border residents might have to reluctantly acknowledge they are more policed and scrutinized on a daily basis than Americans who live elsewhere because of checkpoints on the border and within 100 miles of it. But he said that border enforcement, which carries an estimated annual price tag of $18 billion, should be more closely watched because of its potential to erode civil liberties. For example, O'Rourke said, federal agents there can conduct unwarranted searches. 

 

“This happens without all of the protections that other Americans take for granted,” he said.

During the 2012 incident in El Paso, a woman was strip-searched and agents made a visual and manual inspection of her genitals and anus, according to a lawsuit filed in December 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union. “Finding nothing, Defendants next subjected her to an observed bowel movement,” the complaint states. A spokesman for CBP in El Paso said when the lawsuit was filed that the agency didn't comment on pending litigation but that all allegations of misconduct are taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. 

Some critics of the border agents attribute the violations to a surge in the ranks of Customs and Border Protection, which includes CBP agents at the bridges and Border Patrol officers. Since 2002, the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled. Some say the fast pace of hiring left too much room for errors in training and background checks. The O’Rourke-Pearce bill would require that every CBP officer who engages in law enforcement activities receive at least 19 weeks of training, as opposed to the current 58-day (about 11 weeks) paid-training requirement. An additional 40 days is added to the current training period for prospects who need Spanish-language instruction. 

A 2013 report by the Office of the Inspector General on training standards disagreed with critics' assessment. The review found that the workforce surge did not weaken training standards, but the report concluded that a majority of the alleged excessive force cases investigated showed violations of agency standards. 

 

The National Treasury Employees Union, which includes CBP officers, said in an email that it was reviewing the legislation and its potential impact on its officers. It added that treating travelers courteously was a top priority.

 

“The tens of thousands of Customs and Border Protection employees represented by the National Treasury Employees Union take very seriously their responsibility to treat travelers and those engaged in commercial traffic with respect while meeting their mission duties to help ensure national security,” said Colleen M. Kelley, NTEU president. 

 

 

The new proposal would also establish a U.S. Department of Homeland Security ombudsman to engage the public and investigate alleged rights violations by CBP agents. An aide to U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, declined to comment on the bill.

O’Rourke said he needed to persuade more House Republicans to support the measure because they control the chamber. And he said he was confident they would listen to his three-tiered argument. The bill, he said, would appeal to conservatives because it would increase oversight of the large amount of money being spent on border enforcement, it would seek to prevent the erosion of civil liberties that Tea Party Republicans and libertarians champion, and it would curb the growth of federal bureaucracy on the border.

“There is no better case of that for those of us that live on the border and deal with this huge border enforcement program that has gotten significantly bigger,” he said.

The filing came the same day that U.S. House Democrats announced they would launch a discharge petition to force Republican Speaker John Boehner to bring House Resolution 15, the lower chamber’s comprehensive immigration bill, to the floor for a vote.

A discharge petition circumvents the usual committee process and brings a bill to the floor if a majority of House members, which would currently be 218 representatives, agree to the action. Democrats said the discharge petition is probably the only recourse because Republicans have failed to take on the issue since the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive measure in June.

Like the Senate bill, HR 15 includes a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the qualifying undocumented immigrants in the country, with a shorter path for DREAM Act-eligible youths, undocumented immigrants brought here as children who have excelled in school and stayed out of trouble with the law.

It doesn’t contain a Senate measure that would almost double the number of Border Patrol officers on the southern border. Instead, it would create border security metrics to achieve “operational control” of the border. 

Most Texas Democrats rallied behind the effort.

“As the only Congressman representing a district with more border with Mexico than any other – over 800 miles of U.S.-Mexico border from El Paso to Eagle Pass – I understand border security and the need for immigration reform,” U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said in a statement. 

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said the petition would allow House Republicans who have recently stated their support for reform to show that support.

“This procedural move is a way to allow the 20 or so Republicans who have publicly said that they support comprehensive reform to join with Democrats and get a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives,” he said.

But not all Texas border Democrats support the measure. U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said he objected to the border security provision.

“HR 15 provides that border security triggers may be required at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security before undocumented immigrants are allowed to obtain lawful permanent residence,” he said in a statement. “Equally troubling, HR 15 authorizes National Guard deployment to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and authorizes the implementation of a ‘Southern Border Fencing Strategy.’”

O’Rourke said HR 15 wasn’t perfect but was better than the Senate pitch, which would have doubled the presence of Border Patrol and almost tripled the cost of enforcement. 

“Someone needs to stand up and say, ‘There is a better way to do this,’” O'Rourke said.

But U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, slammed the Democrats' tactics on immigration. 

“The Democrats’ bill to give amnesty to almost 11 million illegal immigrants is insulting to those who have been playing by the rules and waiting their turn in line. Why should those who have broken our laws be treated better than those who are obeying our laws?" he said in a statement.