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Amid Complaints, Lawmakers Seek More Oversight For Border Agents

U.S. Reps. Beto O'Rourke of Texas and Steve Pearce of New Mexico are looking for answers to their questions about the Border Patrol. These Southwest representatives, one Democrat and the other Republican, have neighboring districts along the U.S.-Mexico border.

They introduced legislation in March that calls for more oversight and accountability for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP.

Still, O'Rourke says, the "vast majority" of the agents and CBP officers he's met "do what I think are among the toughest jobs in federal employment in very difficult circumstances, very difficult terrain, trying to remain vigilant against innumerable threats."

In an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, O'Rourke and Pearce shared their constituents' stories of alleged misconduct by agents.

"We routinely get complaints of unprofessionalism or abuse as people are crossing the ports of entry for legitimate reasons with legitimate travel documentation," says O'Rourke, whose district includes El Paso.

For example, a person may tell an agent he or she is planning to shop in El Paso, and the agent asks to see how much money that person has. "It's unprofessional, absolutely unnecessary," O'Rourke says.

He also brings up the case of a New Mexico woman who was strip-searched on her way back from Juarez last year, under the suspicion that she was carrying drugs; none were found.

El Paso Times reports, "The woman claims two officers with Customs and Border Protection subjected her to a six-hour body cavity search that included extensive frisking, an observed bowel movement, and X-rays, speculum and vaginal exams and a CT scan at University Medical Center." She was then billed $5,000 for those tests.

The lawsuit has been partially settled, El Paso Times said last week.

In Pearce's rural New Mexico district, ranchers have complained about Border Patrol agents leaving their gates open and letting out cattle, or that agents have hit livestock with their vehicles without consequences.

Then there's the question of using lethal force against people who are unarmed, allegedly throwing rocks at Border Patrol agents.

"Yes, the rock throwing should not be occurring," Pearce says, "but also the response should be adequate and in line with the actions being taken on the other side."

CBP Chief Michael Fisher released a memo on deadly force on March 7. Fisher said afterward that he wanted to clarify how agents should stop vehicles and handle people who are throwing rocks. The vice president of the border agents' union told NPR's John Burnett in April, "We didn't see anything new in the directive." (Here's the CBP's policy on use of force, published in 2010. It includes a section called "Use of Deadly Force.")

The legislation Pearce and O'Rourke have introduced calls for a review of these policies and the agency's training programs.

"We are now spending $18 billion a year to secure the border, which is more than twice what we were spending 10 years ago," O'Rourke says, "and in the surge of spending and doubling the size of the Border Patrol ... there hasn't been the requisite training and oversight and transparency necessary to make sure that we get the absolute most professional force on the border that is treating everyone with dignity and respect."

The CBP website says new Border Patrol agents have 58 days of "Basic Academy" in New Mexico, which includes "such topics as immigration and nationality laws, physical training and marksmanship." Extra days are required for those who need to learn Spanish.

In 2007, the Government Accountability Office reviewed basic training for agents, finding that it "exhibits attributes of an effective training program," and that the costs seemed to be in line with similar law enforcement programs.

However, that review happened before the number of agents doubled. At the time, the GAO expressed concern that "the Border Patrol's plan to hire an unprecedented number of new agents over the next two years could strain the [20 CBP sectors'] ability to provide adequate supervision and training."

A spokesman for the GAO said in an email that there hasn't been a follow-up assessment.

NPR has been reaching out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for an interview with a senior official. We're still trying to schedule that interview.

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