In the last decade, U.S. Border Patrol has become one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation. But regulatory oversight and transparency haven’t kept pace. Border residents complain of civil rights abuses including body cavity searches and other harassment at immigration checkpoints. Border Patrol shootings have also increased. Since January 2010, at least 28 people have been killed by agents, some shot in the back while standing in Mexico, according to the ACLU. But for anyone with a grievance against the federal agency, there’s little remedy other than a lawsuit. In March, two border congressional leaders—one a Republican and the other a Democrat—filed a bill to make the Border Patrol more accountable to the public and to require better use-of-force training and oversight for its agents.
Whether the bill will make it through a Congress deeply divided on anything border-related is questionable. But Congressman Steve Pearce (R-NM), cosponsor of the bill along with Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), is pragmatic about its chances. So far, he’s the only Republican signed on to House Resolution 4303, known as the Border Enforcement Accountability, Oversight, and Community Engagement Act of 2014. “Immigration is one of the hottest, most volatile issues,” Pearce says. “So it’s not like we think it’s going to automatically pass.”
To date, six Democrats have pledged support, and in April the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, where it remains. Even if it doesn’t pass, Pearce says, it still sends a message many Republicans can get behind: that federal overreach—which is sometimes literal—needs to be reined in. “The Border Patrol agents are very arrogant, and I can’t tell you how many constituents I’ve had in my office complaining,” Pearce says. “I’ve had constituents subjected to body cavity searches.”
HR 4303 would require the agency to create a Border Community Liaison Office to field complaints and a committee to evaluate Border Patrol training and use-of-force policies, and to report to Congress on agent-related deaths. Momentum for reform is growing. Under pressure from lawmakers and human rights groups, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the umbrella agency of Border Patrol, recently released a highly critical report by an independent auditor evaluating the agency’s use-of-force policies. The report found that in some cases agents stepped in front of moving vehicles to justify shooting, and that other agents shot at people throwing rocks when they could have simply moved out of the way. “I think this bill—even if it doesn’t pass—communicates its own message to the Border Patrol,” Pearce says. “People are watching. And as other legislators learn more about the bill there’s going to be a predominant opinion that something needs to be done.”