Getting information from Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security is not just difficult for journalists and private citizens—even members of Congress have a hard time getting answers. Brooke speaks with Representative Beto O'Rourke of Texas' 16th District about the oversight needed to ensure more transparency from DHS.
And a crowdsourcing project to Shed Light on DHS!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The following has happened to Terry Bressi, a staff engineer at the University of Arizona, Tucson, more than 300 times.
MALE AGENT: Sir, are you a citizen?
TERRY BRESSI: I don’t have to answer that question, sir.
MALE AGENT: What country are you a citizen of?
TERRI BRESSI: Again, I’m sorry, I don’t – I don’t have to answer that question, sir.
MALE AGENT: I’m ordering you to park over there in Lane 2.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It happens on his regular commute to the Kitt Peak National Observatory, on an east-west highway, 40 miles north of the Mexican border. He records the episodes because he's been hauled from his car and charged for being uncooperative when stopped by US border authorities at checkpoints nowhere near the border.
Beto O'Rourke, who represents the 16th District of Texas, including the city of El Paso, concedes that it’s long been assumed that people at ports of entry must endure some suspension of due process protections but that in light of DHS opacity, a mushrooming CBP and that movable border, we need a new law.
REP. BETA O’ROURKE: When you live on the border that suspension of some of the due process and protections that you have extends up to 100 miles from the border, Canadian or Mexican. It’s one of those things that we’ve put up on the border for a really long time that I realized that we really shouldn’t be putting up with. On a daily basis, people come to our office who have just crossed the bridge and waited in line for two hours, in extreme cases, three hours, to cross into the United States. They get to the front of that line. They talk to a Customs and Border Protection officer. They are treated with less than respect or maybe even abused. And then, when they want to complain, they have to complain to that officer’s superior, no accountablity, ultimately.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You and 19 other members of Congress sent a letter to the acting commissioner there, Thomas Winkowski, and you asked, among other things, for CBP’s use of force policy handbook. Did you get it?
REP. O’ROURKE: We have not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why not?
REP. O’ROURKE: I, I don't know, and we’re certainly going to be persistent, but we’re not going to just stop there. We are soon to introduce with Steve Pearce, Republican representative of Southern New Mexico, the bill that will create a Border Oversight Commission, with subpoena authority, so that we could get the answers. It would create an ombudsmen, so that if you have a, serious allegation of abuse, you can file that immediately, and there’s one source that you can go to, to make sure that that’s investigated and that there is some accountability.
And it’s important for me to say, I really respect and am grateful for the work that those CBP officers do. I think it’s probably one of the toughest jobs that you can have in federal employment, very unpredictable, potentially very dangerous. However, we must treat every single person who comes through those ports of entry with the highest respect, and not treat anyone in a way that they feel that they have been abused. And we do have those documented cases of abuse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We spoke ourselves to the attorney for Jane Doe, a person about whom you wrote a letter to Commissioner Winkowski in December.
REP. O’ROURKE: This is an awful case and deeply embarrassing to me as an El Pasean and as an American. What we want to know is how widespread are these kinds of abuses. And, again, it gets back to this issue of oversight. We are not able to get those numbers to date from the Acting Commissioner Thomas Winkowski. We want to make sure that there’s a statutory requirement to provide this information, so that we have the kind of accountability that’s necessary for us to have a functional border that treats people with respect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So give it to me absolutely straight, Congressman. As someone who sits on the House Committee on Homeland Security, how much influence does Congress have to impel any information from DHS, at this point?
REP. O’ROURKE: DHS, and specifically, Customs and Border Protection and our current acting commissioner, most of our routine day-to-day that we bring up with them have been very responsive. In these issues of accountability and oversight, when it comes to agents and officers who have potentially abused border crossers and US citizens, they have been less than forthcoming, less than responsive, when we’re trying to understand the scope and the depth of the problems that we have here.
And, again, that's why we're not simply going to rely on our ability to request this information as individual members of Congress, but we want to put something into law that compels DHS and its sub agencies to turn over information when we request it, because we’re having this problem right now, and also make sure that the person who is entering our ports of entry has those safeguards and protections in a single source that they can go to, to file a complaint and expect a response in a reasonable amount of time, something that we are not getting today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it just politically untenable to question these things?
REP. O’ROURKE: You know, security comes first in so many people’s minds, so you’ve seen an explosion in assets and resources and force on the border, without enough training, without enough oversight, without enough checks and balances. I think this is just too politically convenient, for people to beef up border security. It sounds good. It appeals to an emotional anxiety that many Americans have about our border.
It’s much more difficult when you look at the underlying facts and find that El Paso is the safest city in the country, that the US side of the US-Mexico border is far safer than the interior of this country, and that we really don’t have a border security problem anywhere near the rhetoric that we’re hearing in the Capitol.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much, Congressman.
REP. O’ROURKE: Than you. Thanks for your attention to this issue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Congressman Beto O’Rourke represents Texas’ 16th Congressional District, which includes the border city of El Paso, and he serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security.
As we heard from Lee Hamilton, there is no better, or perhaps no other, way of demanding accountability from DHS than contacting your local representative and asking them to do so on your behalf. To that end, we created a web tool with the help of our friends in the WNYC Data News Team. It’s extremely simple to use. When you click the button that says Call Your Representative, you will be prompted to enter your phone number. A few seconds later, your phone will ring and you’ll be put through to the office of your representative.
After we launched a few months ago, we checked in with some listeners to get feedback about the experience of actually using it. In order, you’ll hear Ehud Gavron, Philip Elmer-Dewitt and Alison Dalton Smith.
EHUD GAVRON: I would say it’s easy, it’s fun, it makes the conversation with Congress a lot easier because you have straight-up questions that somebody else has researched and put in front of you.
PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT: The magic of it is you enter your phone number and suddenly your phone rings and your congressman is on the other line.
ALISON DALTON SMITH: I would say that it’s very empowering, and I would suggest that anyone who is thinking about it, just take the leap. It's easy and it’s quick, and you feel like you're part of something.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a long road, but really we have to take it because if, as acknowledged, our rights to due process recede as we approach the border and if that border is so mutable that agents may demand our papers on an Amtrak bound from Chicago to New York, and if our representatives, stymied either by politics or DHS stonewalling, can’t perform oversight, then those rights truly are at risk. At least, we need to know what’s going on. So use the tool and help us shed light on DHS. Go to onthemedia.org to find out how.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary, Laura Mayer and Meera Sharma. We had more help from Kimmie Regler. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.