By Nick Miroff, MSN
The Department of Homeland Security named its first ombudsman for immigration detention Tuesday, setting up a new designated office to field complaints and allegations of mistreatment, abuse and other problems inside the country’s sprawling network of immigration jails and detention centers.
Luke Bellocchi, an immigration attorney and policy aide with long-standing Republican ties, will serve in the ombudsman role, acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement. The position was created at the behest of Democratic members of the House Judiciary committee and the congressional Hispanic caucus, following a period during which the Trump administration’s immigration policies have produced successive scandals and controversies.
Bellocchi worked in a deputy ombudsman role at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the administration of President George W. Bush, and he also has served as assistant commissioner for congressional affairs while at Customs and Border Protection, according to DHS.
“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,” Wolf said.
The number of immigrants held in U.S. custody soared to record levels under the Trump administration, and conditions inside the nation’s system of jails and detention centers have generated frequent complaints of medical neglect, abuse and dysfunction. The number of detainees who died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody increased to 21 during fiscal 2020, the highest number in more than a decade, even as the agency took steps to reduce its detainee population to minimize spreading the novel coronavirus.
More recently, nearly two dozen women who were in ICE custody in Georgia have alleged they were subjected to unwanted, unnecessary or questionable medical procedures after they were sent to a gynecologist for treatment. The DHS Office of Inspector General is investigating their complaints.
The new DHS ombudsman will work with the inspector general’s office and report directly to the homeland security secretary, according to the department.
Personnel from the ombudsman’s office will have authority to conduct unannounced inspections and visits to immigration detention facilities, regardless of whether they are government-run or privately operated. The ombudsman also will be responsible for establishing a process to investigate complaints of misconduct and abuse, as well as providing assistance to victims.
Congress authorized $10 million last year to establish the office and hire staff.