U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan said the border has hit it’s “breaking point” during a visit to El Paso.
A huge influx of Central American migrants has made the El Paso Sector the second-busiest location on the U.S.-Mexico border.
McAleenan spoke Wednesday morning along the border in the Chihuahuita neighborhood in Downtown El Paso.
The immigration system “breaking point has arrived this week,” McAleenan said.
“CBP is facing an unprecedented humanitarian and border security crisis all along our Southwest Border — and nowhere has that crisis manifested more acutely than here in El Paso,” McAleenan said.
In the past two mornings, border officers took more than 12,000 migrants into custody along the border, McAleenan said.
“A high number is 4,000 — 6,000 is crisis level,” McAleenan said. “Twelve thousand is unprecedented. On Monday, we saw the highest total of apprehensions and encounters in years, with over 4,000 in a single day.”
He continued, “We are now on pace for over 100,000 apprehensions and encounters with migrants, with 90 percent — 90,000 — crossing the border illegally between ports of entry. March will be the highest month in over a decade.”
The number of migrants detained in El Paso is not as large as in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, but the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector has seen the biggest growth along the border.
McAleenan said that Congress needs to come up with legislative solutions to expedite political asylum claims made by migrants.
“The surge numbers are just overwhelming the entire system,” McAleenan said.
He said that 10 to 15 percent of migrants have legitimate asylum claims, but it will take years for those claims to be heard in court.
“Economic migration” from impoverished Central American nations is overwhelming the legitimate asylum system, McAleenan said.
While 65 percent of border crossings are families and children surrendering to agents, the rest are adults trying to evade capture, including some with criminal backgrounds, McAleenan said.
The Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso immigrant advocacy group, said that the government should invest in staff and infrastructure “to make our asylum system in ways that uplift our values and humanity of all persons.”
In a statement, the group accused McAleenan of painting migrants as criminals.
“Asylum seekers are not criminals,” the group stated. “Asylum is a lawful process and migrants need to have an ability to claim asylum. Denying migrants the ability to claim asylum at ports, as our laws are designed to work, may force them to cross without authorization but does not make them criminals or undermine their asylum claims in any way.”
The group added that they “invite Commissioner McAleenan to tell the Irish of the 1840s or the Italians of the 1890s that poverty and starvation are not reasons to come to seek the opportunity, welcome, and grace of these United States.”
Bridge waits may grow as CBP officers sent to help Border Patrol
There could be longer waits to cross the border at the ports of entry because 750 CBP officers are being shifted to help Border Patrol, McAleenan said.
“El Paso knows what those six bridges mean in the daily commerce with Mexico,” McAleenan said. “We need those officers now, though, to help Border Patrol agents to care for migrants.”
CBP officers will help the Border Patrol with processing, transportation and hospital watch duties involving detained migrants, McAleenan said.
“There will be impacts to traffic at the border,” McAleenan said. “There will be a slowdown in the processing of trade. There will be longer wait times in our pedestrian and passenger vehicle lanes.
“We know that we have Semana Santa, Holy Week, approaching, but this is required to help us manage this operational crisis,” he added.
Holy Week is a popular vacation period in Mexico and a busy time for border travelers.
Number of Central American immigrants continues to rise in El Paso
El Paso leaders have accused federal authorities of not doing enough to assist and deal with problems in Central America pushing migrants in what they described as a “humanitarian crisis.”
The numbers of migrants from Central America and other countries has been rising since last year.
The arrival of migrants is straining immigrant shelters across the border in Juárez, Mexico, where the city opened a shelter inside a gym.
Some migrants seek political asylum at the international ports of entry, including in El Paso and Antelope Wells in the remote Bootheel of New Mexico.
In a practice known as “metering,” CBP officers stand at the borderline at the middle of international bridges in El Paso and tell asylum seekers to wait because of a lack of space at CBP facilities.
Other migrants cross the Rio Grande often in groups of hundreds of men, women and children to surrender to El Paso Border Patrol agents on U.S. soil on the river levee next to the tall, metal border fence.
Border Patrol officials have said the agency is averaging about 570 migrant apprehensions a day in the El Paso Sector, mostly in the El Paso metro area.
More than 36,000 migrant families have arrived in the El Paso border region in fiscal year 2019 compared with about 2,000 at the same time last year, according to CBP data.
Statistics show that the number of unaccompanied children jumped from more than 1,300 last year to more than 5,000 this fiscal year. The federal fiscal year begins in October.
About 1,000 migrants were taken into custody in El Paso in one day on March 6 with large groups walking across the Rio Grande to turn themselves in.
The number of migrants is far fewer than decades ago, but the demographics have changed, Border Patrol officials said.
More than a decade ago, El Paso area Border Patrol agents were dealing with mostly adult Mexican males, which means detainees could be arrested, processed and returned to Mexico within hours, officials said.
In a development sparked by the surge in migrants, Border Patrol highway checkpoints in the El Paso Sector have been closed to shift agents to duties dealing with the influx.
Also, a new immigration processing center will be built in El Paso to help address the large number of migrants crossing the Southwest border, CBP officials said.
Migrant shelters strained
The large number of migrants also is straining the network of temporary migrant shelters at churches and charities in the El Paso-Las Cruces area.
Migrants stay in the El Paso area from one to three days before traveling to sponsors or relatives in other parts of the United States.
McAleenan said he met with El Paso Mayor Dee Margo. McAleenan said CBP will continue to work with the city and El Paso County, as well as nonprofit immigration shelters, such as Annunciation House.
El Paso immigrant advocates described 2018 as their “busiest year ever” but current trends could surpass last year.
Immigration historically increases in the spring months of March, April and May as the weather gets warmer.
Daniel Borunda may be reached at 546-6102; [email protected]; @BorundaDaniel on Twitter.
Aaron Martinez may be reached at 546-6249; [email protected]; @AMartinez31 on Twitter.
© 2019 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.