Border Patrol Photos Spur Calls for More DHS Officer Oversight

  • Lawmakers tout bills to rein in DHS law enforcement
  • Border Patrol, DHS headquarters have history of tension

Lawmakers are using the uproar over the treatment of Haitian migrants as support for proposals to tighten oversight of the Department of Homeland Security’s law enforcement work.

“The administration needs to hold accountable and have a zero-tolerance policy for those who abuse the dignity of migrants,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) said Wednesday at a press conference condemning recent images of Border Patrol agents using horse reins against migrants in Del Rio, Texas.

Haitian Migrant Situation Prompts Review of U.S. Intelligence

Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images
Haitian migrants cross the Rio Grande River as seen from Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila state, Mexico, on Sept. 23, 2021.

Escobar called on fellow lawmakers to support legislation she reintroduced earlier this year (H.R. 3557 ) to bring accountability to “an agency that is out of control.” The House passed the bill in the last Congress, but the Republican-led Senate didn’t take it up.

DHS has more law enforcement officers than any other federal agency, and has long faced calls from advocacy groups and think tanks to minimize, spin off, or revamp that part of its work.

Escobar’s bill would require U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and other DHS law enforcement officials to undergo training in lawful use of force, de-escalation tactics, asylum law, and other matters. It would also create a border ombudsman to field concerns from the public, and require DHS to study the use of body cameras. DHS issued body cameras to some border agents earlier this year.

Separate legislation (H.R. 4357) from House Homeland Security Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and other committee Democrats would create a new associate secretary position to oversee DHS’s law enforcement components and require the agency to update its use-of-force policy.

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The changes are necessary after the Trump administration “misused the department for years,” but even the current rules should have prevented the horseback incident, Thompson said in a statement to Bloomberg Government.

“What we have seen in Del Rio this past week should not be permissible even under the current rules,” Thompson said Thursday.

Chad Wolf, who was the acting leader of DHS during the Trump administration, criticized lawmakers for using the incident to target law enforcement.

“We need to understand if anything inappropriate happened,” he said. “Did they follow their training? If they did, maybe the training needs to be different. That isn’t something that needs to be fixed with legislation.”

Instead, Wolf said lawmakers should consider “legislation that gives the department new authorities to deal with the border crisis.”

Homeland Security Revamp Effort Seeks to Skirt Turf Skirmishes

Agency Action

The horseback incident is likely to fuel additional calls to action among members of Congress, though it’s unlikely they will be able to move legislation in the short term, said Kate Mills, an Obama-era U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official now at the lobbying firm Monument Advocacy. Follow-up action from the agency to review law enforcement protocols is probable, she said.

Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ordered an immediate investigation of the horseback incident, which he said would be complete in a matter of days. The agents involved are on administrative duties in the meantime, and DHS has suspended the use of horse patrols in Del Rio.

Mayorkas has also directed personnel from CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility to remain on site, as the agency continues to respond to Haitian migrants in the area. As of Thursday, about 3,100 migrants remained in Del Rio — down from a high of 15,000.

Haitian Treatment Spikes Pressure on Biden Immigration Policies

Broader moves to tighten oversight of the Border Patrol could create friction between DHS law enforcement and agency leaders. The union that represents thousands of Border Patrol agents has already issued a statement condemning the Biden administration for making “ignorant and derogatory comments” about the mounted agents.

Border Patrol agents and other DHS law enforcement along the southern border have a history of tension with agency headquarters, questioning whether officials in Washington understand operational needs in the field, Mills said.

The lack of Senate-confirmed leadership for CBP and ICE has exacerbated the problem, she said. Ed Gonzalez, the nominee to lead ICE, is awaiting a vote by the full Senate; and Chris Magnus, the nominee to lead CBP, is still awaiting a committee hearing while Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) seeks information from DHS and the Justice Department about a separate matter.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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