October 24, 2019

Harris, Senate Democrats Introduce the Homeland Security Improvement Act

WASHINGTON, D.C.— U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) joined Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), along with Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) in introducing the Homeland Security Improvement Act, legislation that addresses some of the nation’s immigration challenges at the southwest border and improves 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.

“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.”

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 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 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.