The nation’s border security chief said Tuesday that the nation’s immigration system still faces a “humanitarian and national security crisis,” even as the number of migrants reaching the Southwest border has dropped in recent months.
Transnational criminal organizations “are taking full advantage of the humanitarian crisis, using families and kids as a diversion to get the bad people and drugs into our country,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan during a news conference in El Paso.
“It’s happening every single day,” he said. “Those drugs and those criminals are finding their way into every town and city in this country.”
Against the backdrop of the 18-foot steel border fence that divides El Paso and Juárez, Morgan touted the Trump administration’s border security policies, including controversial programs to force some asylum seekers to wait in Mexico and detain others under a fast-track process now being tested in El Paso. He applauded the cooperation of Mexico and Central American nations, which have faced increased U.S. pressure to block migrants’ paths north.
U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 851,000 migrants in fiscal 2019, more than double the 396,579 migrants apprehended in fiscal 2018. El Paso sector saw a massive increase in apprehensions, too, with 182,143 in fiscal 2019, up from 31,561 a year ago.
But the number of families, unaccompanied children and other migrants apprehended at the Southwest border has dropped each of the past four months, including in El Paso, according to CBP.
El Paso became ground zero in 2019 in a humanitarian crisis at the Southwest border, as record numbers of families and children flocked to the U.S. through the spring and summer, many of them seeking refuge from gang violence and extreme poverty.
Immigrant advocates say the “crisis” was largely manufactured.
Asylum seekers may legally present at official ports of entry to make their claim, according to U.S. law. But as CBP began limiting the number of people allowed to present at ports of entry last year — a practice advocates call “metering” — many migrants began turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents between ports of entry.
The “give-ups,” as Border Patrol calls the migrants who turn themselves in, are counted in government statistics among the “apprehended.”
“The vast majority of those arrested didn’t have to be arrested,” said Fernando Garcia, director of the nonprofit Border Network for Human Rights, based in El Paso. “They could have come to the ports of entry to request asylum. If they had put the resources at the ports of entry, those numbers would be different.”
Morgan said claims of a manufactured crisis are “misleading.”
“There is much more to this crisis,” he said. “Illicit narcotics are pouring into this country.”
Drug seizures dropped in fiscal 2019. Together, CBP and Border Patrol seized 749,000 pounds of narcotics nationwide in fiscal 2019, including cocaine, heroin and fentanyl. In fiscal 2018, border agents and port officers seized 895,000 pounds of drugs nationwide.
An exodus from Central America
A toxic combination of criminal violence, poverty and political instability drove an exodus of people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador over the past year, advocates say.
The administration has argued that “loopholes” in U.S. asylum law served as a draw for people who wish to live and work in the U.S. Historically, refugees who reach the U.S. shores may claim asylum — which, even if ultimately denied, allow migrants to live and work in the U.S. while waiting months or years for their petition to be resolved.
For the past three years, Border Patrol has apprehended more people from places “other than Mexico” — primarily from Central America — than from Mexico. For example, in fiscal 2018, border agents apprehended roughly 152,000 Mexican nationals and 244,322 people from places “other than Mexico.”
Migrants increasingly arrived with children in tow this past year, complicating the government’s efforts to detain them. A legal standard under the 1997 Flores settlement prevents the government from detaining children for more than three weeks.
The Trump administration has challenged that settlement. Frustrated with the prohibition on long-term family detention, the Department of Homeland Security announced a policy to keep asylum seekers out of the U.S. while they pursued their claim.
The policy, called the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” forces migrants, including families, who claim fear of returning to their home country to wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration court. More than 55,000 people have been subjected to the program borderwide, according to Border Patrol.
“MPP has been a game changer,” Morgan said. “In the media it just doesn’t seem to be reported what we say when we say this: We want to do this, not just for this country, for the United States, but for the families that are coming and the kids. They are being abused. These cartels and smuggling organizations, they are treating them as a commodity. It’s disgusting.”
Border Patrol apprehended 473,682 family units in fiscal 2019 — a record since CBP began keeping track in 2013. It’s more than four times the 107,212 family units apprehended at the border last fiscal year.
Border Patrol also saw a 52% increase in apprehensions of unaccompanied minors, which rose to 76,000 in fiscal 2019 from 50,036 a year ago — a decade high.
The federal government was caught off guard this summer by the number of young arrivals.
Border agents were unable to process children traveling alone as quickly as the agency’s own protocol required: within 72 hours — or much faster when possible — and to turn the children over the the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement for placement in a shelter and, eventually, with a sponsor.
But during the height of the crisis in May and June, ORR said it didn’t have enough beds. And children, including toddlers, were languishing in ill-equipped Border Patrol stations for days and weeks at a time, including one at Clint, near El Paso, where attorneys under the Flores Settlement allegedly found children in unsanitary conditions, many without a bed to sleep in.
“It could happen again,” Morgan told the El Paso Times, after the news conference. “This is what we are trying to get Congress to understand: We need to be able to turn that funding on fast, so if we see a surge, HHS can get funding right away to increase their bed space so they’re not in our custody.”
© 2019 the El Paso Times
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