Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small says U.S. customs and border patrol are in desperate need of more agents to deal with the influx of asylum seekers crossing in to the U.S., and she is introducing legislation to bolster the number of agents.
“We don’t have the manpower to process asylum seekers,” Torres Small said in an interview with the Journal on Friday. “We don’t have the manpower to stop the illegal activities coming across the border.”
She is introducing the bipartisan U.S. Customs and Border Protection Rural and Remote Hiring and Retention Strategy Act with Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas. The legislation would require CBP to come up with a strategy to address recruiting and retention issues.
The freshman Democratic lawmaker represents New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers New Mexico’s 200-plus miles along the border with Mexico.
She blamed the Trump administration’s policy of limiting the number of asylum seekers allowed into the United States each day through ports of entry to contributing to the rise of migrant families crossing the Mexican border, especially at remote places.
She said migrants being turned away from ports of entry are “showing up in mostly rural places like Antelope Wells” in New Mexico’s Bootheel region. Border agents told the Journal they are now also seeing an influx of migrants crossing in El Paso and Sunland Park.
The policy to limit the daily number processed at ports of entry, known as “metering,” also came up Feb. 27 during questioning of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen before the House Homeland Security Committee.
Nielsen defended the policy during the hearing, saying it was within her department’s authority with an agreement with Mexico to return migrants across the border while they awaited their asylum hearings.
As for the manpower shortage, Torres Small said U.S. Customs and Border Protection currently has 1,117 unfilled positions, and U.S. Border Patrol has 1,993 unfilled positions.
“It’s a problem,” Torres Small said. “We are losing as many officers as we are gaining.”
She said last year there was a net increase of officers and agents, “but it was very small.”
While the manpower shortage has been a problem all along the border, Torres Small noted that it is an even bigger problem in rural areas like Antelope Wells, where hundreds of migrants – many of them families and unaccompanied minors – have been crossing the border since late last year.
“In order to ensure that CBP can properly adapt to the changing circumstances along the remote sections of our southern border, we must ensure it has the resources to do so, and that starts with personnel,” Torres Small said.
She said she wants CBP officials to “talk to the agents in the field” to see if solutions can be found.
Torres Small said officers and agents have left jobs for better pay and benefits with other law enforcement and federal agencies, but funding isn’t necessarily the problem.
Among issues contributing to recruitment and retention problems are the long commutes officers and agents face and “time away from their families,” she said.
Torres Small said providing families with such benefits as housing assistance could help keep agents on the job.
She and Hurd are also backing the Border Patrol Agent Pay Reform Amendment Act.
“It makes changes to their outdated leave policies,” she said.
Current policies penalize agents for such actions as taking leave for National Guard duty, she said.
The bill would allow agents to work longer days in a more condensed schedule.
“That would allow them more time with their families,” Torres Small said.
Addressing the manpower shortage is just one part of the puzzle in addressing problems along the border, especially the Bootheel.
“We’re seeing some real challenges,” Torres Small said.
She said significant resources were needed in transporting migrants from remote places along the border for processing and medical issues. Torres Small is suggesting contracting out transportation.
She said more medical resources were needed in the area and suggested working with local medical facilities to find out what assistance they needed.
“They are also being really impacted by this,” Torres Small said.