Merkley, Colleagues Call For Accountability Following Trump Administration’s Reckless Immigration Operation in Guatemala

Merkley, Colleagues Call For Accountability Following Trump Administration’s Reckless Immigration Operation in Guatemala

Washington D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley—who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—teamed up with Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-TX-20), Congresswoman Norma Torres (D-CA-35), and 39 other Democratic lawmakers in demanding that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) take immediate action to prevent U.S. immigration authorities overseas from conducting unauthorized enforcement operations.

The lawmakers’ call follows the release of a report by the Democratic Staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that exposed a January 2020 incident where DHS personnel in Guatemala conducted a reckless operation that breached restrictions on their funding; undermined the State Department’s role as the principal steward of U.S. foreign policy; caused the State Department to transmit misleading information to Congress; and lacked security, personal safety, respect for human rights, and proper protocols for the international screening of migrants.

“The report outlines that in January 2020 DHS agents in Guatemala misused State Department funds to rent unmarked vans and contract drivers to transport an unidentified number of migrants back to the Guatemala-Honduras border,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and DHS Under Secretary Chad Wolf, asserting that DHS violated an interagency agreement with the State Department and initially denied its participation in the Guatemala operation. “In turn, DHS obfuscation caused the State Department to transmit misleading responses to Congress on January 22, 2020, which stated, ‘DHS has informed INL that they did not participate in the action of bussing Honduran migrants from Guatemala back to the Honduran border or their country of origin.’”

Given the serious nature of these violations and DHS’s initial efforts to obscure its transgressions, the lawmakers also called on Secretary Pompeo and Under Secretary Wolf to produce a full report on the January 2020 incident and requested information concerning State Department and DHS leaderships’ efforts to ensure future accountability.

“As Members of Congress, we take our oversight responsibilities seriously,” the lawmakers added. “When DHS provides the State Department with false information that in turn is transmitted to the Senate, this undermines the fundamental relationship between the Congress and the Executive. We trust you recognize the gravity of this matter and will take immediate steps to prevent future incidents.”

Today’s letter restates the following key findings from the recent SFRC Democratic Staff report:

  • DHS admitted to use of unmarked vans to transport migrant women and children to the Guatemala-Honduras border as part of an operation conducted in January 2020.
  • DHS misused foreign assistance funds and violated an interagency agreement with the State Department that explicitly barred the use of INL funds for migrant operations.
  • DHS’ ad hoc operation lacked protocols related to security, personal safety, and the screening of migrants who may have been eligible for international protection.
  • DHS lied about its misuse of INL funding, which caused the State Department to transmit misleading information to Congress.

A copy of the letter to Secretary Pompeo and Under Secretary Wolf may be found here and is available below.

 

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Secretary Pompeo and Under Secretary Wolf:

We write to express our concern about the January 2020 incident uncovered in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Democratic staff report that reveals that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials participated in a reckless immigration operation in Guatemala.[1] The report found that DHS misused State Department funds, violated an agreement between the two departments, and initially provided false information in response to SFRC inquiries.

The report outlines that in January 2020 DHS agents in Guatemala misused State Department funds to rent unmarked vans and contract drivers to transport an unidentified number of migrants back to the Guatemala-Honduras border. Using funds transferred from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), DHS carried out an ad hoc operation that appears to have lacked protocols related to security, personal safety, and the screening of migrants who may have been eligible for international protection. Additionally, while DHS admitted that it used the unmarked vans to transport women and children, it has been unwilling or unable to provide information as to whether any migrant families or children were separated during the operation or if there were any procedures in place to reunify these families.

DHS participation in the January 2020 incident in Guatemala occurred despite an explicit prohibition in the interagency agreement between the State Department and DHS that bars the use of INL funds for migration operations. Given that INL funds were intended for training and providing technical assistance to Guatemalan police and border authorities, DHS’ improvised operation constituted a direct violation of its interagency agreement with the State Department and a misuse of INL funding.

Equally troubling, when SFRC Democratic staff submitted a written inquiry about the January 2020 incident to the Department of State, DHS initially provided the State Department with false information stating that it had not participated in the operation in Guatemala. In turn, DHS obfuscation caused the State Department to transmit misleading responses to Congress on January 22, 2020, which stated, “DHS has informed INL that they did not participate in the action of bussing Honduran migrants from Guatemala back to the Honduran border or their country of origin.”[2] However, on January 30, the State Department informed SFRC staff that information initially provided by DHS contained significant inaccuracies, prompting the submission of revised responses that confirmed the improper use of funds to rent “vans … to return Honduran migrants to the Guatemala-Honduran border.”[3]

While a request has been submitted to the State Department and DHS Inspectors General to review January 2020 events in Guatemala, the serious nature of these violations and initial efforts by DHS to obfuscate its transgressions requires you both to take the necessary steps to guarantee that similar events do not occur again. [4] We ask that the State Department and DHS provide our offices with a full report of the January 2020 incident and the steps you and senior leadership in both departments have taken to ensure accountability.

As Members of Congress, we take our oversight responsibilities seriously.  When DHS provides the State Department with false information that in turn is transmitted to the Senate, this undermines the fundamental relationship between the Congress and the Executive. We trust you recognize the gravity of this matter and will take immediate steps to prevent future incidents.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your prompt response.

 

Sincerely,



[1] “DHS Run Amok? A Reckless Overseas Operation, Violations, and Lies,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Staff, October 13, 2020.

[2] See Annex A, “DHS Run Amok? A Reckless Overseas Operation, Violations, and Lies,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Staff, October 13, 2020.

[3] See Annex B, “DHS Run Amok? A Reckless Overseas Operation, Violations, and Lies,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Staff, October 13, 2020.

[4] Letter, Senator Robert Menendez, Ranking Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Letter to Ambassador Matthew Klimow and Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari, October 13, 2020. Accessed on October 16, 2020 at https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/10-13-20%20RM%20letter%20to%20State%20DHS%20IGs.pdf.