(Washington, D.C.) May 7, 2014 — As part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Congress directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to ensure the adequate protection of civil rights and civil liberties while carrying out its mission. Within DHS, the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties exists to support the Department mission "while preserving individual liberty, fairness, and equality under the law."
However, consistent, documented — yet avoidable — deficiencies within the Department’s complaint systems have inhibited their ability to identify internal civil rights concerns and take appropriate action.
• DHS routinely fails to respond, investigate, or provide appropriate redress to complaints. Complainants frequently wait years, only to receive form letters, if anything at all, in response to serious complaints alleging misconduct and mismanagement.
• The Department directs individuals to file complaints through many different avenues, resulting in departmental inefficiency and public confusion about where and how to file complaints. Customs and Border Protection’s February 2014 guidance on nondiscrimination directs prospective complainants to no fewer than six different Departmental entities — none of which includes the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which expressly claims jurisdiction over civil rights issues.
• DHS complaint databases provide inadequate information regarding complaint trends, thereby missing an opportunity to inform Department policies, trainings, procedures, and budgets.
• DHS’ complaint procedures lack transparency and are inconsistent with the Administration's Open Government Initiative. Complaint processing at DHS remains a virtual black hole. DHS does not provide public copies of complaints or resolutions, or even information regarding whether a complaint was ever investigated. As a result, the public is forced to rely on the FOIA process for information about complaints, often with inconsistent and inadequate results.
• DHS procedures fall short of best practices for receiving, processing, and investigating complaints.
In order to alleviate these deficiencies and increase the efficiency of complaint processing by DHS, the following actions are recommended:
• Develop one centralized online complaint form and one supporting mobile device application, thereby permitting anyone to file any immigration or border-related complaint without fear of using the wrong form. Both the online system and mobile app should permit complainants to upload photo, video, documentary, or other supporting evidence. The web address should be displayedatall detention facilities, ports of entry, interior checkpoints, and on marked DHS vehicles, and permit individuals to file complaints in multiple languages.
• Create one toll-free number where anyone can file any immigration or border-related complaint. The number should be displayedatall detention facilities, ports of entry, interior checkpoints, and on marked DHS vehicles, and permit individuals to file complaints in multiple languages. There should be a complaint hotline that is easily accessible to detainees in every DHS detention facility. Hotline phones should be available at ICE owned and operated facilities, short-term CBP facilities, ICE contract facilities, and facilities governed by intergovernmental service agreements. Having both a toll-free hotline is important to ensure everyone has the ability to file a complaint, regardless of their access to the internet.
• Create a mechanism, both web and telephonic based, that provides individuals with timely information in multiple languages regarding the status of their complaint, including which entity within DHS is processing the complaint.
• Establish a publicly accessible national, standardized database of complaints, including written resolutions, filed with CBP, ICE, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, or any other entity within the Department. The database should ensure appropriate privacy protections to maintain the confidentiality of complainants, witnesses, or other individuals.
• Develop a uniform process for receiving, processing, and investigating all immigration and border related complaints.
Learn more, read the letter of recommendations here.
The recommendations were submitted to the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Council, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Americans for Immigrant Justice, Border Network for Human Rights, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, Kino Border Initiative, Latin America Working Group, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, National Immigration Forum, New York Civil Liberties Union, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, Southern Border Communities Coalition, the U.S. Jesuit Conference, and the Women's Refugee Commission.