Amid Complaints, Lawmakers Seek More Oversight For Border Agents

May 16, 2014
Originally published on May 16, 2014 11:07 am

U.S. Reps. Beto O'Rourke of Texas and Steve Pearce of New Mexico are looking for answers to their questions about the Border Patrol. These Southwest representatives, one Democrat and the other Republican, have neighboring districts along the U.S.-Mexico border.

They introduced legislation in March that calls for more oversight and accountability for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP.

Still, O'Rourke says, the "vast majority" of the agents and CBP officers he's met "do what I think are among the toughest jobs in federal employment in very difficult circumstances, very difficult terrain, trying to remain vigilant against innumerable threats."

In an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, O'Rourke and Pearce shared their constituents' stories of alleged misconduct by agents.

"We routinely get complaints of unprofessionalism or abuse as people are crossing the ports of entry for legitimate reasons with legitimate travel documentation," says O'Rourke, whose district includes El Paso.

For example, a person may tell an agent he or she is planning to shop in El Paso, and the agent asks to see how much money that person has. "It's unprofessional, absolutely unnecessary," O'Rourke says.

He also brings up the case of a New Mexico woman who was strip-searched on her way back from Juarez last year, under the suspicion that she was carrying drugs; none were found.

El Paso Times reports, "The woman claims two officers with Customs and Border Protection subjected her to a six-hour body cavity search that included extensive frisking, an observed bowel movement, and X-rays, speculum and vaginal exams and a CT scan at University Medical Center." She was then billed $5,000 for those tests.

The lawsuit has been partially settled, El Paso Times said last week.

In Pearce's rural New Mexico district, ranchers have complained about Border Patrol agents leaving their gates open and letting out cattle, or that agents have hit livestock with their vehicles without consequences.

Then there's the question of using lethal force against people who are unarmed, allegedly throwing rocks at Border Patrol agents.

"Yes, the rock throwing should not be occurring," Pearce says, "but also the response should be adequate and in line with the actions being taken on the other side."

CBP Chief Michael Fisher released a memo on deadly force on March 7. Fisher said afterward that he wanted to clarify how agents should stop vehicles and handle people who are throwing rocks. The vice president of the border agents' union told NPR's John Burnett in April, "We didn't see anything new in the directive." (Here's the CBP's policy on use of force, published in 2010. It includes a section called "Use of Deadly Force.")

The legislation Pearce and O'Rourke have introduced calls for a review of these policies and the agency's training programs.

"We are now spending $18 billion a year to secure the border, which is more than twice what we were spending 10 years ago," O'Rourke says, "and in the surge of spending and doubling the size of the Border Patrol ... there hasn't been the requisite training and oversight and transparency necessary to make sure that we get the absolute most professional force on the border that is treating everyone with dignity and respect."

The CBP website says new Border Patrol agents have 58 days of "Basic Academy" in New Mexico, which includes "such topics as immigration and nationality laws, physical training and marksmanship." Extra days are required for those who need to learn Spanish.

In 2007, the Government Accountability Office reviewed basic training for agents, finding that it "exhibits attributes of an effective training program," and that the costs seemed to be in line with similar law enforcement programs.

However, that review happened before the number of agents doubled. At the time, the GAO expressed concern that "the Border Patrol's plan to hire an unprecedented number of new agents over the next two years could strain the [20 CBP sectors'] ability to provide adequate supervision and training."

A spokesman for the GAO said in an email that there hasn't been a follow-up assessment.

NPR has been reaching out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for an interview with a senior official. We're still trying to schedule that interview.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

We'll hear next from two congressmen who say they're not getting answers to their questions about U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. We've been reporting on that agency's transparency after agents have shot people along the U.S.-Mexico border. The two congressmen have broader concerns which affect their constituents, they say, because they represent border areas. One is a Republican, Steve Pearce of New Mexico. The other is Democrat Beto O'Rourke of Texas.

REP. BETO O'ROURKE: Well, if it's OK, I'll start. This is Beto in El Paso.

INSKEEP: The two congressmen co-sponsored legislation demanding more information about shootings involving the Border Patrol, incidents involving Customs agents at border crossings, and training as the agency called CBP expanded.

O'ROURKE: We are now spending $18 billion a year to secure the border, which is more than twice what we were spending 10 years ago. And in the surge of spending and in doubling the size of the Border Patrol - the actual number of agents who are on the border - there hasn't been the requisite training and oversight and transparency necessary to make sure that we get the absolute most professional force on the border that is treating everyone with dignity and respect.

INSKEEP: Dignity and respect, here's what makes Congressman O'Rourke raise those issues.

O'ROURKE: We routinely get complaints of un-professionalism or abuse as people are crossing the ports of entry for legitimate reasons with legitimate travel documentation. And those can be cases where the person who's crossing, when declaring their purpose for the visit, says they're going to be shopping in El Paso. And that CBP officer may then ask that person to show them how much money they have in that wallet. Which is not welcoming, it's unprofessional, absolutely unnecessary.

And then we have these sensational complaints and allegations that we heard last year, including a woman who was suspected of having drugs, was strip searched, was made to perform a bowel movement in front of CBP officers, was X-rayed and CT scanned against her will, was invasively probed. And no drugs were found at all and she was sent a bill for $5,000 for the procedures.

And those are the things that we're trying to prevent, report on, and improve the outcomes for the people that we represent along the border.

INSKEEP: Congressman Pearce, your district, if I'm not mistaken, includes border crossings in New Mexico. What's happening there?

REP. STEVE PEARCE: We hear many of the same circumstances that legitimate visitors who are coming here are treated in the way that Beto described. But then we have much more rural area than Beto's. And so our ranchers say, you know the CBP will leave our gates open, our cows get out and wander on the highways and they get killed. Or even CBP vehicles hit them and kill our cows and they just turn a deaf ear, the same thing as the human rights violations that Beto is talking about.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about what you're describing, Congressman Pearce, and trying to bear in mind that there's probably some inevitable friction. They're border crossings, they're guarded, people have to be questioned, some people may be upset. Does it strike you though that the kinds of complaints that you're getting are beyond what's normal or acceptable?

PEARCE: I think we're finding that across the spectrum in all government agencies. We deal in this big rural district with Defense Department, BLM, Forestry - any of the agencies - Fish and Wildlife. And we're finding this same sort of irreverent attitude towards the citizens, that we can do it and we will do it, and no one can say anything.

INSKEEP: There have been a number of cases of cross border shootings in the last several years. There's been at least one this year involving someone crossing the border who was alleged to be throwing rocks at Border Patrol agents. People are unarmed but alleged in some cases to be attacking the Border Patrol in some way and they're shot and killed. Is that a matter of concern to either of you?

PEARCE: Yes, it is to me. And so I look at the war areas and how we train our soldiers in combat. You may have someone driving a car and a soldier, from a half a mile away, has to decide if that has got a car bomb in it, or if it's a legitimate traffic. And very few mistakes and high level professionalism when I talk to the soldiers in saying, we challenge ourselves to be very good at this. And it's a life or death situation.

So the fact that you've got border agents who are shooting when a rock throwing incident occurs, yes, the rock throwing should not be occurring. But also the response should be adequate and in-line with the actions being taken on the other side. And so I think that's the training that Beto and I both are seeking to find.

INSKEEP: Congressman O'Rourke, there was a case right on the border between El Paso and Juarez where a teenager was in the culvert - the Rio Grande River - between the two countries and was alleged to be throwing rocks, and was shot. We spoke not long ago to the mother of that teenager. Have you learned anymore about why those kinds of incidents take place?

O'ROURKE: You know, I think it's important for me to first say that the vast majority of the agents that I've met in the CBP officers for that matter, do what I think are among the toughest jobs in federal employment in very difficult circumstances, very difficult terrain, trying to remain vigilant against innumerable threats. But what's clear in that case in El Paso, and in many other cases that we read about, is that we have case after case of disproportionate use of force. Whether it's somebody throwing a rock, whether it's somebody driving a car and the public, the press, the oversight in Congress has been trying to learn what the use of force policies are, how we might be able to improve them, how we can improve the training that's going on. But CBP has virtually been unaccountable.

INSKEEP: Congressman Pearce, I think you're going to add something there.

PEARCE: Just that I find that same resistance to sharing information - and it's across the political spectrum. It was under the previous administrations and now under this one, so I think it's not just a party question either.

INSKEEP: I do understand that you seem to be saying this lack of transparency predates the Obama administration. But I wonder if there's a particular concern with this administration, that perhaps this administration is being a little defensive in a hyper partisan environment that they don't want to let out anything that could be used against them on a sensitive subject like immigration.

O'ROURKE: Well, they've got to get over it. It's their responsibility to get us the answers that were looking for. And if they won't do that, we're going to do everything in our power to make sure that we can pass this bill so that this administration and every administration thereafter is forced to give the American public the answers that we deserve.

INSKEEP: Republican Congressmen Steve Pearce of New Mexico and Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rouke of El Paso, Texas. Thanks to both of you.

PEARCE: Thank you.

O'ROURKE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: now we mentioned in two previous reports on the subject in recent weeks that we are working to schedule an interview with a senior border patrol official. That invitation remains open and we are still hoping to hear from a top official from Customs and Border Protection. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.