DHS names new accountability officer for immigration detention violations

Immigration

FILE – In this June 2018 file photo, protesters walk along Montana Avenue outside the El Paso Processing Center in El Paso, Texas. A few Indian nationals seeking asylum in the U.S. have been forced to receive IV drips at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Texas as they approach their third week of a hunger strike, according to their attorney. (Rudy Gutierrez/The El Paso Times via AP, File)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced its first ombudsman for immigration complaints on Tuesday to address reports of abuse, misconduct and other issues spanning immigration detention centers in the United States. 

On Tuesday, DHS named Luke Bellocchi as its first ever ombudsman, a government official who investigates complaints against the government by private citizens.

“Today, I am pleased to announce Luke Bellocchi as the Department’s Ombudsman for Immigration Detention. Luke’s experience in both the public sector and the federal government has positioned him well for this new role at DHS, and I look forward to working with Luke to stand-up this new office,” said Chad Wolf, Acting DHS Secretary. 

The role was created at the insistence of Congressional representatives calling for a deeper degree of accountability that will lead to meaningful improvements in immigration detention facilities. 

In March, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent a letter to Wolf to implore DHS to follow through with implementing an ombudsman for immigration detention. 

The letter explained that on Dec. 20, 2019, Public Law 116-93 established the role and provided $10 million to get started. 

“We are eager to see the Department move forward with organizing this office, but we are disappointed to see that the fiscal year 2021 budget request included no continuing funding for the office. We also want to underscore the importance of setting up the new office, and appointing the new ombudsman, in a way that ensures credibility,” reads the letter in part, with signatures that include Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro and Congresswoman Veronica Escobar of El Paso.

According to Congress’s stipulations, the new office will have a multitude of responsibilities that include creating a redress process for DHS misconduct and providing recommendations for improvements at detention facilities. 

The ombudsman office will be authorized to make unannounced visits to immigration facilities for inspection that are government operated, as well as privately run facilities. 

“Given this wide range of duties and access, it is critical that the appointed Ombudsman be someone with a demonstrated commitment to the law and to the rights of detainees, and that it be staffed and equipped with the resources necessary to provide a persistent presence at each detention location in order to execute its mission fully,” the letter continued. 

Before being named in the new role, Bellochi served as an immigration attorney and policy aide. Bellochi has experience after serving in a similar position as deputy ombudsman for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services under President George W. Bush. Other experience includes serving as assistant commissioner for congressional affairs with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is part of DHS and has faced criticism for the treatment of migrants.

“In the last four years, we have witnessed abhorrent immigration policies that have cruelly separated children from their parents, including 545 children whose parents cannot be found; subjected detainees to medical abuse and neglect, from force-feeding to unwanted gynecological procedures; and traumatized thousands of others from their experiences in detention centers,” Congresswoman Veronica Escobar tells KTSM.

“After relentless efforts to hold the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) accountable and demand transparency, it’s my hope that the DHS office of the ombudsman for immigration detention, which was set up to address reports of abuse, misconduct, and neglect will create that accountability and transparency. The strength of the office will, of course, depend on the integrity of its leader. I’m grateful to Chairwoman Roybal-Allard for establishing and funding this measure in the FY20 minibus package that is modeled after a provision in one of my bills, the Homeland Security Improvement Act, created with feedback from immigration advocates in El Paso. It is past time that DHS provide oversight and transparency within its detention operations and treat individuals in their care with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Escobar continued.

In August, Congresswoman Escobar called for the DHS Office of the Inspector General to investigate ICE following the immediate expulsion of migrants and hotel detentions. 

As ombudsman, Bellochi will work closely with the office of the inspector general and report directly to Wolf.

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