Shootings by Border Patrol get attention of Congress

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WASHINGTON — A wave of fatal shootings of unarmed civilians by Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico line has drawn bipartisan scrutiny to the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency.

As attention increases on the deaths of nearly two dozen people in the past four years, some in Congress say the agency needs more training and more accountability.

Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Republican Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico say they will introduce legislation today that would impose more levels of oversight and accountability of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

The bill would create an independent oversight commission with subpoena power and an ombudsman position who would investigate complaints. It also would develop sensitivity training and new guidelines on the use of force.

The deaths of at least 21 people have led to criticism that the Border Patrol’s rapid growth has created an unregulated environment that indirectly grants permission to agents to shoot unarmed Mexicans.

Ten people were killed for throwing rocks, according to agency statistics. None of the shooters is known to have been disciplined.

The homicides include that of Jose Antonio Elena, 16, who was shot once in the back of the head, once in the back of his neck, six times in his back and once in each arm, as he walked home on the Mexican side of the border fence in 2012. The Border Patrol says it was responding to rocks being thrown at its agents.

Meanwhile, ranchers on the Texas side of the border complain they have no recourse if a fence is damaged or cattle killed by Border Patrol agents chasing undocumented immigrants.

“Our offices receive frequent reports from constituents and surrounding communities regarding excessive use of force and other agent misconduct,” O’Rourke said in a statement Tuesday. “Yet there is no coherent complaint process.”

A delegation led by the Border Network for Human Rights of groups working along the Arizona and Texas borders will be in Washington today to support the legislation and call for more oversight and transparency of agency policies on the use of force.