WASHINGTON — Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, teamed up with a Texas Democrat on Wednesday to introduce a bill that would beef up oversight of the U.S. Border Patrol and offer additional ways for people to report abuses.
The legislation comes after several fatal shootings of unarmed civilians by Border Patrol agents near the Mexican border. Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, co-sponsored the legislation with Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who represents El Paso.
The bill would create an independent Border Oversight Commission with subpoena powers and place an ombudsman within the Customs and Border Protection office who would be responsible for investigating complaints. The legislation would also establish a Border Community Liaison Office, require additional use-of-force training for Border Patrol officers and mandate regular reports from the agency to Congress.
Pearce said news stories of seemingly unwarranted violence, as well as reports of invasive search procedures of people apprehended at the border, factored into his decision to introduce the legislation. He was also concerned about federal encroachment onto private property on the New Mexico side of the border.
“We had been running into ranchers who said, ‘These arrogant (Border Patrol agents) run over our cows and never pay us for them and leave our gates open and tell us it’s all in the line of duty,’ ” Pearce said. “The political spectrum has actually come circular here — left and right are pretty well in agreement. The last thing we want as a country are people coming here to visit and get treated (improperly).
“This brings it to a higher level of attention,” he added.
Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, called the legislation “unprecedented and historic.”
“It raises the concerns of border and non-border residents about the fast-paced expansion of border enforcement personnel, infrastructure and strategies with no checks and balances, and with complete disregard to the quality of life and the protection of rights of border residents and immigrant families,” he said.
Pearce’s bill comes after legislation he introduced with O’Rourke in January that would grant authorities greater discretion in reviewing citizenship requests of foreigners married to Americans. Minor or technical immigration violations, or those that occurred when the foreign-born spouse was underage, might no longer be disqualifying under the Pearce bill.
Pearce is facing a 2014 re-election campaign in which immigration is likely to be a key issue. He said he would prefer to tackle immigration reform in pieces, as opposed to trying to pass a sweeping overhaul of existing laws. He opposes a so-called “path to citizenship” for an estimated 12 million immigrants who are in the country illegally.
“Both bills we’re working on are small, but they’re also pretty volatile issues. You see a lot of emotional responses on both of them,” he said. “If we can take on small issues and defuse some of the most emotional aspects of the problems of immigration, then it gives us a better, sounder footing to move forward.”