Lawmakers Hope To Curb Human Rights Abuses, Attacks Against Migrants Along U.S.-Mexico Border

Bipartisan legislation being introduced Wednesday would implement new training and oversight rules over the troubled U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

Border patrol agents outside of Sasabe, Ariz. John Stanton

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers Wednesday will introduce new legislation aimed at curbing the growing violence along the U.S.-Mexico border that has left dozens of Mexicans, Americans, and others dead or injured as a result of murky use-of-force policies at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Texas Democrat and one of the co-authors of the bill, said as federal spending on border control has skyrocketed, congressional oversight of CBP has fallen behind while charges of human rights violations have soared.

“The why is, we’ve stepped up total border spending from 10 years ago from $7 billion to $18 billion today. We’ve doubled the size of the border patrol. We have millions of [border] crossings just in El Paso,” O’Rourke said in an interview Tuesday. “So you have this big build up in enforcement and spending and you’re not even keeping pace on transparency, governance on the committees of jurisdiction … [while] individually and anecdotally you have case after case of alleged violations of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, protections.”

In fact, violence by CBP agents along the border has become an increasing problem under the Obama administration. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, since January 2010 at least 28 people have died during encounters with CBP agents along the Mexican border, including a number of deaths of Mexican nationals as the result of cross-border shootings. Nine others were seriously injured. To date, no agent has been charged in any of the deaths.

The bipartisan legislation, authored by O’Rourke and New Mexico Republican Rep. Steve Pearce, would, among other things, create new transparency within the CBP for the public and media, establish a new ombudsman to address complaints of excessive use of force by agents and provide additional training for agents.

Transparency has been a particular problem with CBP, which for years repeatedly brushed off requests for its use of force policies not only by journalists and activists, but even by lawmakers including O’Rourke and Sen. Robert Menendez, and only released it last month after a copy leaked.

“You the press, members of Congress, the public don’t have any information … [about] a place where many Americans don’t realize your constitutional protections are temporarily suspended,” O’Rourke said.

The bill will also create a new system for evaluating and addressing complaints of civil and human rights abuses, something that doesn’t exist on a practical level now. “They won’t always be resolved in the complainants’ favor. But they’re going to be resolved, which doesn’t happen today,” O’Rourke said.

Whether the bill will see much action is unclear. Speaker John Boehner has made clear comprehensive immigration reform isn’t happening this year and that if the House addresses the issue at all, it will be on a piece by piece basis. That could give the Pearce-O’Rourke measure a chance, albeit a slim one.

“We’ll have to take the piecemeal approach,” O’Rourke said.

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