RELEASE: 5 Immediate Steps To Rein in the Department of Homeland Security in the Wake of Portland

Washington, D.C. — The arrests of U.S. citizens on the streets of Portland, Oregon, by unidentified U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel have raised concerns about a department out of control. A new report published today by the Center for American Progress recommends five immediate steps that the next administration and Congress should take to begin to rein in the department and prevent its personnel from being used in the future as federal police force.

The warning signs about dysfunction and a culture of abuse at DHS have been evident for years, including the lack of accountability for repeated abuses by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel; killings along and across the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting from the unjustified use of force, that have been allowed to go unpunished; and families separated at the border and children dying in custody, to name a few. Deploying ICE and CBP to Portland in response to the protests following the murders of Black people at hands of the police was only the latest on this list. And while a full top-to-bottom review of the department, its mission, structure, authorities, and oversight is critically needed, in the interim, there are key steps that the next administration and Congress must take immediately.

The policy recommendations included in the issue brief are:

  • Significantly restrict DHS’ ability to designate CBP and ICE personnel as Federal Protective Service officers. In Portland, cross-designation gave largely untrained CBP and ICE personnel the ability to act as domestic law enforcement during a protest involving First Amendment-protected activity.
  • Restrict the Border Patrol to the actual border. Although the Border Patrol’s reach is generally limited by statute to an area “within a reasonable distance” from any land or maritime border, federal regulations extend this to places that no reasonable person would consider a border and where 2 out of every 3 people in the country currently live. The Border Patrol’s ability to operate should be constrained to ensure that its focus is on true border operations.
  • Require state and local cooperation for domestic law enforcement operations involving ICE and CBP unrelated to their primary responsibilities. CBP and ICE personnel should not be sent on any domestic operation unrelated to their primary duties unless a request for assistance has been made by relevant state and local officials, and a signed memorandum of understanding lays out the scope of their duties.
  • Enhance the authority, transparency, and independence of oversight bodies. A major challenge that the next administration will face when implementing reforms to the immigration enforcement practices of ICE and CBP is that the cultures of both agencies have been transformed during the current administration. The Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties should be empowered to conduct robust investigations, while the Homeland Security Advisory Council should be revamped and used to conduct full reviews to enhance integrity and accountability.
  • Reduce ICE’s and CBP’s budgets. By reducing ICE’s and CBP’s funding to more reasonable levels, the country could direct those resources to important domestic priorities such as education, infrastructure, and the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The sight of unidentified, camouflaged DHS personnel serving a general federal policing function in Portland, Oregon—like the tear gas used to prep a photo-op for the president in Lafayette Square—was a wake-up call for millions of Americans,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president of Immigration Policy at CAP and co-author of the report. “Without question, it’s long past time to seriously review whether DHS is effectively serving its many missions, but the time to make meaningful reforms to prevent future abuses like those we saw in Portland, and elsewhere, is now.”

“People all across the country were rightly horrified at the pictures of unidentified federal shock troops kidnapping American citizens off the streets of an American city. While these five recommendations will not solve all of the issues plaguing DHS today, it will ensure that the actions in Portland cannot happen again and that we once again establish critical oversight into the department,” said Philip E. Wolgin, managing director of Immigration Policy at CAP and co-author of the report.

“The case for meaningful reform of the Department of Homeland Security has never been more urgent. The Trump administration’s latest move to forcefully deploy armed federal law enforcement to cities across the United States, like we saw on the streets of Portland, Oregon, highlights a department that has become susceptible to systemic abuse,” said Claudia Flores, immigration campaign manager at CAP and co-author of the report. “Years of dysfunction and unchecked abuse has put the fundamental mission of DHS in jeopardy. It is time for Congress and the next administration to do the work of reining in an out of control agency.”

Read the report: “5 Immediate Steps To Rein in DHS in the Wake of Portland” by Tom Jawetz, Philip E. Wolgin, and Claudia Flores

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