Border Communities: Incoming U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Must Commit to Advancing Accountability & Transparency Agenda

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Roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population live within the 100-mile border zone where interactions with U.S. Border Patrol agents have become commonplace during commutes to work, school or to run errands. Similarly, enormous numbers of tourists and border residents cross ports of entry every day from Detroit, Michigan to El Paso, Texas.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and agents must be tasked to protect human life and treat everyone with respect, regardless of who they are or where they are from.  As our nation’s largest police force with roughly 60,000 employees — 44,000 of them armed federal agents — CBP should reflect the highest professional 21st century law enforcement standards. Measuring CBP’s compliance with best police practices must be the north star of CBP’s leadership and should dictate how Congress evaluates the professionalism of the agency.

At the request of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, a panel of law enforcement experts co-chaired by former DEA Administrator Karen Tandy and then-New York City Police Department Commissioner William Bratton presented two comprehensive CBP Integrity Advisory Panel reports in 2015-2016, which the HSAC unanimously adopted. The report concluded that the rapid growth of CBP without accountability and disciplinary mechanisms has led to serious criminal and disciplinary problems within the agency. They found CBP “vulnerable to a corruption scandal that could potentially threaten the security of our nation”due in part to a “broken” disciplinary system.

This week, the Senate Finance Committee will consider the nomination of Kevin McAleenan as the next Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The next CBP Commissioner must firmly commit to address CBP’s serious integrity and accountability issues and build upon the oversight and transparency reforms of prior leadership in order to promote trust between border community residents and law enforcement, the cornerstone of public safety.

The Southern Border Communities Coalition and Northern Borders Coalition urge the incoming CBP Commissioner to commit to the following priorities:

I. Protecting Human Life and Investigating Use of Force

Since January 2010, at least 54 individuals have died after an encounter with CBP officials. At least 19 of the individuals were U.S. citizens and six were standing on Mexican soil when shot and killed, including three teenagers, ages 15, 16 and 17. During that same time period, not a single agent has been held accountable in any on-duty use of force that resulted in death.

In 2013, following its internal review of the agency’s use-of-force policies, CBP committed to requiring that officers and agents wear body cameras.  Yet after years of deliberations, CBP has failed to move forward with full implementation of body-worn cameras for all agents and officers or to develop a publicly accessible and strong policy framework to protect privacy while promoting transparency and accountability.

In 2014, CBP publicly released a new use of force handbook. CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility (formerly CBP Internal Affairs) also revised procedures and developed new mechanisms for investigating applications of force, to include public reporting on uses of force and internal agency reviews. Yet CBP has not fully implemented reforms recommended by the external and internal groups, including the Police Executive Research Forum and the CBP Integrity Advisory Panel.

II. Policing Border Communities Free of Bias

The Department of Justice (DOJ) made clear in its December 2014 profiling guidance for federal law enforcement that training, data collection, and accountability are necessary prerequisites to bias-free, transparent policing.  DOJ's Task Force on 21st Century Policing emphasized that “Law enforcement agencies should collect, maintain, and analyze demographic data on all detentions (stops, frisks, searches, summons, and arrests).” 

After a Border Patrol use-of-force incident in upstate New York, the Watertown Daily Times called for proper CBP data collection and expressed surprise that protocols are not already in place1.  The Arizona Republic similarly editorialized concern that “[r]esidents of border communities south of Tucson have long complained about racial profiling and harassment at Border Patrol checkpoints. Their demands for information about the effectiveness of individual stops have been rebuffed.”

The DOJ implemented implicit bias training for all their federal agencies; DHS should do the same. The next CBP Commissioner must expand Border Patrol’s data collection and public reporting to Congress on stops and searches, aggregated by demographics, to oversee use of agency resources and detect and deter racial profiling.

III. Expanding Humanitarian Aid Coordination to Prevent Migrant Deaths

Foreign Affairs has reported that “[s]ince 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, approximately 5,000 migrants have died crossing the border.” Most human rights organizations estimate that number is much higher, and a recent Senate hearing included an estimate of 11,000.

Migrants crossing the border succumb to dehydration and exposure to desert elements. Border Patrol makes public few details about deaths or the methodology it uses to count deaths, making it more difficult for humanitarian workers, law enforcement officials, and others to locate remains.  The next CBP Commissioner should commit to public reporting on existing and planned efforts to mitigate migrant suffering while fulfilling the agency’s enforcement mission.

IV. Upholding Moral and Legal Obligations to give Asylum Seekers a Fair Chance and to Maintain Humane Detention Conditions

The U.S. government is obligated by U.S. and international law to allow noncitizens presenting themselves at U.S. borders and ports of entry to apply for asylum or other forms of humanitarian protection. There have been numerous cases across the country of DHS officials, and CBP officers specifically, providing misleading or inaccurate information and coercing individuals, who may be eligible for relief or discretion, into departing a port of entry, “consenting” to deportation without a hearing, or foregoing their right to a credible fear interview with an asylum officer.

CBP is often the first point of contact for children migrating to the United States. With both the rising numbers of both unaccompanied and accompanied children migrating to the United States in recent years, CBP has become responsible for processing an increasing number of child migrants. DHS should place child welfare professionals to oversee the general custody and care of all children in CBP stations, including monitoring and reporting of abuse or mistreatment.

As this Administration pursues a policy of building capacity to detain even more individuals apprehended at the border, the next CBP Commissioner must lead in reforming CBP detention conditions, particularly in the notorious “hieleras,” freezing holding cells that are frequently overcrowded and unhygienic.

Footnote

1. “Given the questions raised over the past few years about racial and ethnic profiling by law enforcement agencies across the country, it’s difficult to understand why documenting specific information about people who are stopped by border patrol personnel isn’t being done. . . . Detailing who is being stopped, why they are being stopped and what resulted from the stop would go a long way toward ensuring CBP agents are staying within the law.”

About Southern Border Communities Coalition

The Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) brings together organizations from San Diego, California, to Brownsville, Texas, to ensure that border enforcement policies and practices are accountable and fair, respect human dignity and human rights, and prevent the loss of life in the region.

About Northern Borders Coalition

The Northern Borders Coalition is a unified body of immigrant rights organizations across the Northwest, Midwest and Northeastern parts of the country. This coalition, led by One America, NYIC and Michigan United is focused on building strong partnerships that will bring about policy change for positive immigration reform.

 
 
 

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