October 24, 2019

Udall, Senate Democrats Introduce the Homeland Security Improvement Act

New Senate legislation is a companion to House-passed bill that will create a DHS ombudsman to improve agency accountability and ensure better engagement with border communities

WASHINGTON— Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), along with U.S. Senators Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the Homeland Security Improvement Act to address some of the nation’s immigration challenges at the southwest border and improve Department of Homeland Security (DHS) engagement with border communities. The bill establishes an ombudsman for border and immigration enforcement related concerns within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to better ensure accountability, transparency, and oversight. The corresponding House bill sponsored by U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar (D-TX.), H.R. 2203, passed in a 230-194 vote in September 2019.

Currently, DHS develops its own rules and policies for the conduct of operations along the border without meaningful input from stakeholders, particularly border communities – creating increasing tension between the agency and the public. The Homeland Security Improvement Act significantly improves DHS operations by mandating community input on enforcement policies and programs and improves transparency by requiring robust reporting on actions and operations.

“DHS performs important missions in border security and facilitating border trade, but right now, DHS enforcement practices lack transparency and the department is failing to engage with the communities where the agency’s presence is greatest. Public complaints and requests sometimes sit for months on DHS desks and often go completely ignored. DHS should be accountable to the American people who deserve to know and have input on the way their taxpayer dollars are used and the way their government engages with the public. The creation of an ombudsman role will streamline DHS operations for the benefit of our border communities—including those in New Mexico—and ultimately benefit DHS and its employees as well,” said Udall.“With the Homeland Security Improvement Act, we will empower our border communities in New Mexico, and other border states, to more efficiently and safely handle the immigration needs that are at their doorsteps.”

“Since the beginning of this administration, the Department of Homeland Security has been a party to human rights abuses against immigrant children, multiple deaths in U.S. custody, abhorrent conditions in detention centers, and so much more. DHS’s actions have shocked the American people and severely damaged our nation’s standing as a safe haven for those fleeing violence and oppression,” said Harris. “We must prevent this in the future. We must require training, oversight, and accountability within DHS to ensure the department respects the basic dignity of every person.”

“The atrocities being committed at our southern border shock the conscience,” said Wyden. “A new system is desperately needed to shed a light on the Department of Homeland Security’s cruel and inhumane practices so that swift action can be taken to right the Trump administration’s many wrongs.”

“Under the Trump Administration, the Department of Homeland Security’s mandate seems to be the abuse of immigrants’ civil and human rights, not the safety of the American people. I’ve witnessed some of this agency’s most egregious failures firsthand – looking into the eyes of a father and his daughter held at a CBP facility in El Paso and hearing the pleas of families in Connecticut who are losing a loved one to a cruel, senseless deportation. This agency needs dramatic reform and much more accountability and oversight,” said Blumenthal.

“The Trump administration’s inhumane and reckless immigration and border policies have endangered the lives of immigrants and instilled fear in New Mexico’s border communities,” said Heinrich. “We must hold the Department of Homeland Security accountable for adhering to our laws and to American values. Establishing an ombudsman within the Department of Homeland Security is a critical step towards increasing transparency and accountability for ICE and CBP.”

“At every turn, the Trump administration has chosen policies that demonize immigrant communities—proving time and time again that it cares more about creating a climate of fear than treating human beings with fairness and respect,” said Merkley. “That’s why it couldn’t be more important for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection to treat human and civil rights violations with the seriousness they deserve. This legislation works to promote that vision by requiring transparency and oversight over ICE and CBP investigations and officer training. This is essential to restoring a philosophy and practice of treating refugees and immigrants with respect and decency.”

“The Homeland Security Improvement Act is a critical piece of legislation that will bring us closer to ensuring DHS has the accountability and oversight the agency so desperately needs while protecting our agents, officers and border communities, and affirming our nation’s commitment to helping the most vulnerable among us,” said Escobar. “I look forward to working with Senator Udall and the Senate to advance this legislation and leading in our nation’s fight to restore human dignity.”

DHS routinely fails to respond, investigate, or provide appropriate redress to public complaints. Complainants frequently wait months or years, only to receive form letters, if anything at all, in response to serious complaints alleging misconduct and mismanagement.  DHS also directs individuals to file complaints through a confusing variety of processes, resulting in departmental inefficiency and public confusion about where and how to address concerns. This inadequate process exacerbates tensions between the agency and the communities in which it operates, which contributes to public dissatisfaction and lower agency morale.  The creation of an ombudsman will alleviate these issues by increasing transparency and accountability and assisting individuals in resolving complaints.

The Homeland Security Improvement Act is supported by a number of organizations including America’s Voice, American Civil Liberties Union, Border Network for Human Rights, National Education Association, Service Employees International Union, and the Southern Border Communities Coalition.

“BNHR and the thousands of border residents we represent applaud and support the leadership of Senator Udall for introducing the Homeland Security Improvement Act. This legislation, which already passed in the House of Representatives, will bring the necessary transparency, professionalism, and accountability mechanisms to our border enforcement agencies and law enforcement institutions.  By bringing this important legislation to the Senate, Senator Udall is responding to the concerns and drawing upon the solutions that border residents have expounded for years.  America can, and must have borders rooted in constitutional, civil, and human rights,” said Fernando Garcia, Executive Director at Border Network for Human Rights.

“The southern border region is one of hope, encounter and opportunity, but for too long, ICE and CBP have operated under a culture of impunity, sowing fear and threatening the values our vibrant border communities hold dear. We thank Sen. Udall for introducing this bill as a vital step to bring urgently needed transparency and accountability to border agents for their actions. These agencies have abused their authority with impunity. It is time to re-think borders to align with our nation's core values and this bill is an important step in that direction,” said Vicki B. Gaubeca, Director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition. 

“The ACLU endorses the Homeland Security Improvement Act’s constructive measures to increase oversight and accountability of CBP and ICE, the country’s largest law enforcement force. By improving complaint processes and requiring stakeholder consultation, this bill creates new vehicles to address the pattern of abusive conduct by DHS in the border region and throughout the nation. We strongly support these much-needed structural improvements to DHS’s transparency -- including body-worn cameras, which must be accompanied by strong future policy guidance -- as vital responses to egregious rights violations by ICE and CBP,” said Astrid Dominguez, Director of the ACLU’s Border Rights Center.  

The Homeland Security Improvement Act would:

- Establish an independent ombudsman to promote a neutral and confidential process to assist individuals with complaints against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

- Direct the ombudsman to establish a Border Oversight Panel to evaluate and make recommendations regarding the border enforcement policies, strategies, and programs that directly affect border communities.

- Require the ombudsman to conduct annual training evaluations,

- Mandate the ombudsman create an electronic tracking system to speed up family unity,

- Direct the ombudsman to develop a plan requiring the use of body-worn cameras by U.S. Border Patrol agents and ICE officers when engaged in border security and immigration enforcement activities.

The full text of the legislation can be found HERE.