The acting secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, raises his right hand to swear in during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on September 23, 2020 in Washington, DC. © Greg Nash/Pool via AP

(Washington, DC) – United States senators should vote no on the nomination of Chad Wolf for Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary and instead investigate his alleged involvement in abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee are set to vote on the nomination on September 30, 2020.

Wolf was instrumental in developing the policy of separating children from their parents at the US-Mexico border and as acting secretary, oversaw a range of abusive practices and policies at DHS. Wolf is also the subject of a whistleblower complaint alleging that he and other senior officials sought to modify DHS intelligence reports on critical issues affecting human rights in the US, including elections.

“During his time in DHS leadership roles, Chad Wolf has overseen several abusive policies and actions, both along the border and in the US interior,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US program executive director at Human Rights Watch. “Senators should be investigating the policies and actions Wolf has overseen and pursuing accountability for abuses, not rewarding him with a powerful position in federal law enforcement.”

Wolf has served as DHS acting secretary for nearly a year. A federal judge recently ruled that his acting appointment to that position was most likely unlawful.

Wolf initially told members of Congress that he was not involved in creating the Trump administration’s family separation policy, where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents forcibly took children from their parents at the border as early as 2017. However, NBC obtained emails that showed that Wolf included “separate family units” as one of several “policy options” presented to then-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen “to respond to border surge of illegal immigration,” and that he participated in planning meetings.

As a result of the policy, hundreds of families remain separated, which constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that is prohibited under the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other treaties to which the US is a party.

Under Wolf’s current leadership, DHS is on the verge of implementing yet another policy that will result in family separation as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will force parents to choose between indefinite detention with their children or handing their children over to US authorities.

Wolf’s nomination vote comes just weeks after a whistleblower filed a complaint that alleged Wolf and other senior officials at DHS withheld or modified intelligence reports on Russian election interference and white supremacy in the US, and sought to modify reports on "ANTIFA and 'anarchist' groups" to "match[] up" with President Trump's public statements.  

Wolf has also overseen DHS, including ICE, during the Covid-19 pandemic.

ICE unnecessarily detains large numbers of people in conditions ripe for the spread of disease, even in detention centers where staff and/or other detainees have already tested positive for Covid-19. Continued detention endangers detainees and staff and affects the health of the local communities where detention centers are located.

Customs and Border Protection, another DHS agency, has been rapidly expelling children and adults at the US-Mexico border during the pandemic, without legally required screenings for asylum and other protections. Under Wolf’s guidance, ICE has carried out involuntary transfers and deportations of migrants, spreading Covid-19 both within the US and around the world.

A recent whistleblower complaint alleges that the agency has failed to follow guidelines to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and denied medical care at Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Georgia. The complaint and subsequent media reports also allege that unnecessary surgeries, possibly without informed consent, were performed on women detained at the center in 2018 and 2019.

Since July, Wolf has overseen the deployment of CBP and ICE agents to protests across the US. This deployment raised human rights concerns due to the risk their agents would lack training in crowd control and the agencies’ history of human rights violations and lack of accountability, and sent a message of disregard for protesters’ legal protections and well-being.

The US Senate is charged with scrupulously examining the administration’s nominee for secretary of DHS. Given his record, confirming Wolf risks doing further damage to US respect for the right to seek asylum, the rights of immigrants in US detention, and the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.

“Senators have had the opportunity over the past year to see what sort of leader Wolf will be if confirmed,” Austin-Hillery said. “We strongly urge them to oppose his confirmation, which would seriously risk the rights and well-being of US residents and border crossers alike.”