Steller: Want info from opaque Border Patrol? Get a lawyer

2014-05-09T00:00:00Z 2014-05-22T11:53:08Z Steller: Want info from opaque Border Patrol? Get a lawyerTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 09, 2014 12:00 am  • 

To get information from the U.S. Border Patrol these days, you pretty much need a lawyer.

That’s one lesson from a pair of recent occurrences, and it’s the common experience of reporters trying to cover any part of the Department of Homeland Security.

This week, the American Immigration Council released a report investigating how Customs and Border Protection — the component of DHS of which the Border Patrol is part — has handled complaints of mistreatment by Border Patrol agents. As my colleague Perla Trevizo reported, among the 809 complaints filed against agents between January 2009 and January 2012, only 13 resulted in discipline.

How did the council get the information on which it based the report? First, it filed Freedom of Information Act requests, then, getting no response, it filed suit.

That’s how you get your transparency in DHS, which is likely the most opaque department in the federal government. You pay for it.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been pursuing the issue of roving patrols and checkpoints in the inland areas of Southern Arizona and other border regions. In January, the ACLU made two sweeping records requests under FOIA for information on these patrols and checkpoints.

The response? Silence. Nothing after the required month, nothing after the ACLU followed up with an administrative appeal.

“We were a little surprised we didn’t see so much as a form letter or a phone call, any response of any kind for four months following the original request and the administrative appeal,” ACLU attorney James Lyall told me Thursday.

So, on April 28, the ACLU filed suit in federal court.

Reporters often get the same treatment — not just non-responsiveness, but the FOIA used as a tool against us.

Once upon an age, when I covered border issues from 1997 to 2003, it was possible to ask the local Border Patrol office for information and get it. Right away, even. Apprehension figures, agent numbers and locations, apprehensions of Other than Mexicans and their nationalities, even detailed descriptions of incidents.

That’s long since ended. Now, most requests for information are answered by CBP with a request for an FOIA letter. So, for example, my colleague Perla recently requested a breakdown of Border Patrol agent demographics by 11 categories such as age, veteran status, state of origin, level of education and Spanish fluency.

Local Border Patrol contacts said some of it might be immediately available, but no, eventually, she had to request it all via the FOIA, which means long delays and the possibility of a need to hire attorneys.

The issue of transparency in DHS has gotten so bad that the National Public Radio program On the Media started a campaign to get people to contact their members of Congress about it. That program became aware of the problem when a staff member and her family members, all U.S. citizens, were detained at a New York state port of entry for unclear reasons, then later denied information about why they were detained, and even denied interviews about border detention policies.

The problems of oversight, transparency and accountability in DHS became even more clear April 24, when a U.S. Senate committee released a report on the former acting inspector general of DHS, Charles Edwards. It turns out Edwards, who was supposed to lead the watchdog entity overseeing DHS, was running his findings past the department’s administrators and even altering and delaying reports on their behalf.

If you’re wondering how this affects you, remember that the Border Patrol is this area’s largest law-enforcement agency by far, with more than 4,000 agents. We know from experience that many local agents and administrators would like the Customs and Border Protection to be more transparent, but the department’s track record says it will change only if forced.

Olivas skips FEC filing

Pity the poor Republicans of Congressional District 3.

Not only are they outmatched in party registration numbers, not only must they face a strong Democratic incumbent, Raúl Grijalva, but they are also cursed with weak candidates.

Gabriela Saucedo Mercer’s financial struggles have been well-documented, as has Miguel Olivascheckered past. Now, it turns out, Olivas, who previously said he had to delay filing his April 15 financial disclosure, is not planning to file one at all until the next deadline, July 15.

“The campaign was not required to file for the April 15, 2014, committee because we kept our funds below the ($5,000) threshold,” Olivas told me in an email. “When it is required we will file the proper documentation to make me a candidate.”

Fine so far, except Olivas has already filed a declaration of his candidacy, on March 18. When I inquired about it to the Federal Election Commission, they told me that any declared candidate must file quarterly financial disclosure no matter how much money raised or spent. Olivas said he had talked to the FEC about not filing and found it was OK.

This could all be quite troubling if it weren’t likely to end up as a footnote to the race anyway.

Miller’s powerless play

Two occurrences this week laid bare Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller‘s political problems.

First, as my colleague Jamar Younger reported, the county’s human-resources department dismissed her complaint that fellow Republican Supervisor Ray Carroll had been bullying her staff. Then, Tuesday, the board approved a controversial rezoning request in her district that she opposed.

Traditionally, the board defers to the supervisor in whose district such questions arise. But Miller’s many accusations against fellow board members and the county administration, such as the bullying complaint, have led to a broken relationship.

The rezoning required a super-majority to pass, meaning just two of the five board members could have killed it. But Miller doesn’t have a single friend or ally on the board, especially not her fellow Republican Carroll. The result is that she can’t win even a vote on a rezoning in her own district.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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