WASHINGTON -- Comprehensive immigration reform efforts haven't been successful in the House, but two members are hoping they can address at least one key piece of the issue: preventing abuse along the border that leads to invasive screenings, seizures of personal belongings, serious injuries and even deaths.
Reps. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) and Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) introduced a bipartisan bill Wednesday aimed at increasing transparency and accountability at the Customs and Border Protection agency. It's particularly significant given the current congressional deadlock over immigration-related bills. While a comprehensive reform bill doesn't look likely to get through the House, the members are hoping their bill can fit into a piece-by-piece approach.
"With the cards that we've been dealt, which include a piecemeal at best solution to this in the House, this is the way forward," O'Rourke said in an interview.
O'Rourke, who represents El Paso, Texas, said he'd always been aware of the impact of border patrol, but became even more so since he entered Congress last year. His office began hearing frequent complaints about problems citizens had while crossing the border or dealing with CBP officers.
O'Rourke said he had a somewhat troubling experience with them once himself. In 2009, while he and his son were driving to New Mexico from Texas, they were stopped at a checkpoint and detained temporarily. They were not given a reason, he said. "My story is unremarkable, but it was just jolting to me," O'Rourke said.
He noted that many others go through far worse treatment. One of the most egregious cases highlighted by O'Rourke was that of a U.S. citizen who claimed in a lawsuit that she was searched for six hours, including anal and vaginal probes, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort by border patrol agents to find drugs in her body.
CBP has faced numerous complaints over recent years, including over its use of force. There have been at least 28 deaths and nine serious injuries since January 2010 during encounters with CBP agents along the border with Mexico, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. CBP released its guidelines on use of force earlier this month, but only after considerable pressure from groups and members of Congress.
The O'Rourke-Pearce bill would create an independent commission to oversee CBP's use of force, training and search and seizures. It would also establish an ombudsman within the Department of Homeland Security, which houses CBP, in order to address such complaints. In addition, the bill would establish better systems to track deaths of migrants along the border, and work to prevent those deaths. It would require more training for CBP agents and require more reporting on deaths, use of force and alleged civil liberties violations.
"This proposal will help bring accountability, transparency, and cooperation to border patrol efforts," Pearce said in a statement. "This bill helps ensure proper training for all agents and officers, as well as providing mechanisms for greater interaction with the communities in which they serve and protect."
Pearce and O'Rourke worked together on other immigration legislation, the American Families United Act, in the past, and they are hoping that they can win over more members given the bipartisan credentials of both bills. O'Rourke said they're open to changes, and hope to add on a sponsor from the U.S.-Canada border.
"I think all of the provisions of it are tailor-made for bipartisan support," O'Rourke said. "All of this focus on oversight of the $18 billion that are spent, the size and role of government in our lives, and protecting our civil liberties and constitutional rights. That's the Republican playbook. And it happens in this case to be something where I think both sides can get excited about it -- hopefully."