The Homeland Security Department approved Tuesday by the U.S. Congress lacks the internal oversight necessary to protect civil rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill also fails to provide adequate protection for unaccompanied immigrant children.
"In trying to protect America, Congress gave short shrift to protecting civil rights," said Wendy Patten, U.S. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "Much better safeguards are needed to ensure that this new and very powerful agency respects rights while carrying out its mission."
The legislation does not contain effective internal oversight and accountability mechanisms for abuses by officers of the new agency. Although the bill establishes an officer for civil rights and civil liberties in the new department, the officer is not empowered to conduct investigations of rights violations by agency officials, who will include staff from a variety of previously separate agencies, such as the Border Patrol, Coast Guard, Customs Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The new department will include virtually all of the functions of these agencies, not just their components that focus on fighting terrorism.
Human Rights Watch has investigated abuses by INS personnel and found that these abuses persist because agents are not held accountable for violations of law and policy and because of structural flaws in the investigative and disciplinary process. Based on those findings, Human Rights Watch had urged lawmakers to ensure the homeland security bill would include strong mechanisms to prevent, investigate and punish such abuses. In particular, Human Rights Watch called for a designated official in the Inspector General's Office with sufficient expertise and stature to carry out investigations of civil rights complaints and ensure effective civil rights enforcement.
"The new Department urgently needs a Deputy Inspector General for Civil Rights," said Patten. "Without this position, there's no guarantee that civil rights complaints will be handled effectively."
The bill also fails to include basic protections for unaccompanied immigrant children, such as access to counsel and a legal guardian for every child in immigration custody. By moving the care and placement of unaccompanied minors from the INS to the Department of Health and Human Services, the bill does accomplish an important step in protecting immigrant children. But by failing to include provisions mandating access to counsel and standards of detention in children's cases, the legislation ignores the special needs of unaccompanied minors - needs reflected in the version of the bill previously passed by a Senate committee. Without these provisions, the legislation does not adequately protect the rights of unaccompanied children who arrive on U.S. shores.
In September, Human Rights Watch sent letters to each of the 100 U.S. senators, urging them to remedy the bill's failings by insisting that these protections be part of any legislation creating a new homeland security department. Human Rights Watch has worked closely with an informal coalition of U.S. civil rights and immigrants rights groups to urge the Congress to provide for vigorous enforcement of rights protections as it moved to create a homeland security agency.
The new Department of Homeland Security will include roughly 170,000 employees from 22 federal agencies, including 74,300 armed federal agents. The legislation represents the most significant reorganization of the U.S. government in over 50 years.