WASHINGTON — Citing a lack of official responsiveness to numerous reports of abuses by U.S. Border Patrol agents, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) introduced legislation Thursday that would create an independent review commission to investigate complaints and attempt to repair relations with border communities.
"So long as the current complaint process lacks the structure, the accessibility and the integrity, it will never work," the freshman congressman said at a news conference to unveil the bill. "It will never achieve the coherence and the efficiency that we need."
The measure was introduced on the same day that Americas Watch, a human rights monitoring group, released a scathing report alleging that internal complaint procedures "result in inadequate investigations and, ultimately, impunity for abusive agents."
Becerra's proposal, titled the Immigration Enforcement Review Commission Act, would create an office to investigate alleged abuses by immigration and customs agents. It also would add a board of commissioners appointed by the President to evaluate the reports and make discipline and policy recommendations, and an outreach branch to act as liaison between the agencies and border communities.
The Border Patrol, with 4,000 agents nationwide, is an agency of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, itself part of the Justice Department.
Increasingly, independent panels including civilians review actions by local law enforcement agencies, but such oversight bodies are unprecedented in federal law enforcement.
Under current procedures, allegations of serious wrongdoing by Border Patrol agents generally are directed to the Justice Department's inspector general's office. But such internal inquires can drag on for months or years, according to critics inside and outside the Border Patrol, who say the inspector general's office is understaffed and includes many former border agents unlikely to pursue cases against ex-colleagues.
Once investigators have substantiated allegations of misconduct against agents, detractors say, top Border Patrol managers tend to mete out discipline spottily and unevenly, failing to deter wrongdoing.
Becerra described instances in which Border Patrol agents accost and abuse legal citizens and residents "who are Latino and happen to live near the border."
"We are not saying that INS is filled with nothing but abusers," said Becerra, who acknowledged that no accurate statistics are available on abuse, in part because immigrant victims are reluctant to come forward.
"But there are people who do abuse . . . and we are trying to get rid of the bad apples so that INS does not have a bad name."
Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Los Angeles contributed to this story.