October 24, 2019

Wyden, Merkley Introduce the Homeland Security Improvement Act

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

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today joined U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Senate Democrats to introduce legislation 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 Homeland Security Improvement Act establishes an ombudsman for border and immigration enforcement-related concerns within DHS to better ensure accountability, transparency and oversight. 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 improve DHS operations by mandating community input on enforcement policies and programs and improve transparency by requiring robust reporting on actions and operations.

“The atrocities being committed at our southern border shock the conscience,” said Wyden. “I have seen firsthand how 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.”

“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,” Merkley said. “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.”

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 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.

In addition to Wyden, Merkley and Udall, the Homeland Security Improvement Act was introduced by U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Cory Booker, D-N.J.

The legislation 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.

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 corresponding House bill sponsored by U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, H.R. 2203, passed in September 2019.