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US Border Patrol stretched thin as caravan heads north, chief says

Kevin McAleenan, Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at the Salute to Heroes of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection in the East Room of the White House on August 20, 2018. (Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/TNS)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said asylum-seeking families have strained his agency’s ability to respond to the caravan of thousands of immigrants headed for the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Obviously the system is beyond capacity right now,” McAleenan said, with the Border Patrol responsible for transporting and caring for asylum seekers.

“I’d like to free up my officers and agents to do law enforcement work. That’s what they’re trained for; that’s what the American people need them to do on the front line to address security risks,” he said.

President Donald Trump has said the caravan will be stopped, but it’s not clear how the Border Patrol would cope with the task, given an influx of asylum-seeking families this year that recently accelerated.

McAleenan said he plans to send special response and tactical teams to the border ahead of the caravan, likely to large ports of entry where the migrants might attempt to cross into the U.S. They will be joined by 800 troops the Pentagon is deploying.

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“We’re not going to let a large group push into the United States unlawfully,” McAleenan said.

On Friday, McAleenan toured ports of entry south of San Diego in Otay Mesa and San Ysidro after meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at Calexico to review a newly rebuilt section of 30-foot border wall.

There has been a recent surge of crossings by asylum seekers, up from 7,800 last fiscal year to 17,000 in fiscal year 2018, which ended in September, officials said.

That’s reflective of a borderwide surge in asylum seekers, mostly Central American families. More than 161,000 immigrant family members were caught or turned themselves in during the fiscal year that ended last month, 42 percent more than any previous year.

Immigrants can claim asylum once they enter the U.S. Last summer, when immigrant families began lining up on bridges to claim asylum, the Border Patrol began stationing officers at the midpoint, or “limit line,” of the crossings to stop them, citing limited processing space.

In San Ysidro, immigrants turned away from the border can add their names to an unofficial waiting list, a process called metering that McAleenan said keeps waits “manageable.” Elsewhere on the border, asylum seekers are just told to wait. Advocates have sued in California federal court, arguing that the system is tantamount to rejecting asylum seekers.

McAleenan said that if the Border Patrol sees a significant increase in asylum seekers, it will expand metering to other border crossings — effectively blocking immigrants from entering. He said the agency already faced a “significant backlog” of asylum seekers in Tijuana and delays at three to four other crossings daily.

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San Ysidro processes 100 asylum-seekers a day and houses 300, more than other crossings, which house fewer than 100. McAleenan toured holding areas where immigrants were processed behind chain-link fence and housed in locked cells that did not appear full.

McAleenan said he would like to expand the agency’s ability to process and house asylum-seeking families, but was not specific. That appears unlikely. The Trump administration is in a legal battle to extend family detention, but for now, families with children cannot be detained for more than 20 days. Therefore, allowing more families in would mean releasing more pending resolution of their immigration cases.

“The system is failing us,” McAleenan said. “We absolutely need to overhaul the system and ask Congress to address the asylum gap.”

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© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.