Congress reacts to spate of killings by Border Patrol agents

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 25, 2014 


A cross with an image of slaying victim Jose Antonio Elena, 16, commemorates him at the site where he was gunned down by the U.S. Border Patrol on a street in Nogales, Mexico, March 12, 2014.


— A wave of Border Patrol shooting deaths of unarmed civilians along the U.S.-Mexico line has drawn bipartisan scrutiny to the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency.

As attention increases on the deaths of nearly two dozen people in the past four years _ including that of a teenager shot in the back of the head _ some in Congress say the border agency needs more training and more accountability.

Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Republican Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico say they will introduce legislation Wednesday that would impose more levels of oversight and accountability of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

The bill would create an independent oversight commission with subpoena power and an ombudsman position who would investigate complaints. It also would develop sensitivity training and new guidelines on the use of force.

The deaths of at least 21 people have led to criticism that the Border Patrol’s rapid growth has created an unregulated environment that indirectly grants permission to agents to shoot unarmed Mexicans.

Ten people were killed for throwing rocks, according to agency statistics. None of the shooters is known to have been disciplined.

McClatchy and other news organizations have chronicled the homicides. They include that of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena, who was shot once in the back of the head, once in the back of his neck, six times in his back and once in each arm, as he walked home on the Mexican side of the border fence in 2012. The Border Patrol says it was responding to rocks being thrown at its agents.

Meanwhile, ranchers on the Texas side of the border complain they have no recourse if a fence is damaged or cattle is killed by Border Patrol agents chasing undocumented immigrants.

“Our offices receive frequent reports from constituents and surrounding communities regarding excessive use of force and other agent misconduct,” O’Rourke said in a statement Wednesday. “Yet there is no coherent complaint process.”

A delegation led by the Border Network for Human Rights of groups working along the Arizona and Texas borders will be in Washington on Wednesday to support the legislation and call for more oversight and transparency of agency policies on the use of force.

The objective is increasing quality of the agency’s work, not just increasing the quantity of the force, said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network, who is scheduled to appear at a news conference Wednesday with the lawmakers.

“We have asked for accountability on the banking system, the war in Iraq,” he said. “I think we should do that with the largest enforcement force in the nation.”

Pearce said in a statement that the legislation is a “strong starting point” to tackling some of the challenges that face both the United States and his and O’Rourke’s border districts.

Border Patrol public affairs officer Douglas Mosier said he could not comment on pending legislation.

Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher this month instructed his agents to seek cover from rock throwers instead of shooting at them. He also ordered agents not to step in front of vehicles as an excuse for shooting at them.

The politics of the U.S.-Mexico border are complex. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has received tremendous amounts of interest and money as part of the nation’s efforts to curb illegal immigration.

Concerns about border security have fueled the expenditure of billions of dollars on cameras, fences, trucks, drones and armed guards. Despite the increased security on the border, groups on the right have argued it’s still far from secure and have called for more resources and greater manpower.

A Senate proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws last year included spending billions to hire thousands more agents and continue to build and reinforce border fences.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, welcomed the bill and criticized what he says has been a tendency to over-legislate border security.

He said the legislation would be a step toward greater transparency of Border Patrol procedures, better practices by agents and a more measured use of force.

“At some point you have bring a little sanity to it,” he said.

Staff Writer Tim Johnson contributed from Mexico.

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