Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
EL PASO – The head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection visited this stretch of border, where he said Wednesday that the record number of migrant families and children arriving on their own has overwhelmed his agency’s ability to respond.
“That breaking point has arrived this week at the border,” CBP Commissioner Kevin 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,” he said.
The El Paso sector includes all of New Mexico. Sunland Park, just across the state line from El Paso, is also a busy crossing point for migrant families and unaccompanied minors who approach Border Patrol agents and ask for asylum.
“We had over 1,000 apprehensions in this one sector alone on Monday,” McAleenan said.
There are nearly 3,500 migrants in custody in the El Paso sector in “facilities designed for far fewer,” he said. Borderwide – as of Wednesday morning – there were 13,400 migrants in CBP custody. McAleenan said 6,000 is considered a “crisis.”
Under the Paso del Norte International Bridge, near where the commissioner held his news conference, hundreds of migrants waited in tents at a makeshift processing center behind a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. A small group of protesters gathered nearby and chanted “You are not alone” on a megaphone in Spanish. Some of the migrants cheered in response. Others looked bewildered.
McAleenan announced a series of measures to deal with the crisis, including reassigning 750 CBP officers posted at legal ports of entry such as Santa Teresa to help the Border Patrol in El Paso and other areas where agents are overwhelmed by the number of families arriving daily.
McAleenan acknowledged that would lead to longer lines and delays at ports of entry for legal trade and travel.
“There will be impacts to traffic at the border. There will be a slowdown in the processing of trade, there will be wait-time increases 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 said.
Holy Week, which starts on April 14 this year, is a busy travel season, and border crossings spike as tourists from Mexico visit the U.S. on vacation or to spend time with relatives.
Immigrant advocates blame the Trump administration for creating the crisis by telling asylum seekers at ports of entry that their names must go on a list and they must wait in Mexico. In the El Paso area, CBP allows a few dozen of those asylum seekers a day to cross into the U.S. and file asylum claims.
“If you allowed family-by-family to cross as they arrived at the ports of entries, you wouldn’t have this crisis of hundreds of them crossing between ports of entry,” Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights, told a news conference in El Paso.
McAleenan blamed the crisis in part on the backlog of asylum cases.
“The increase in family units is a direct response to the vulnerabilities in our legal framework where migrants and smugglers know that they will be released and allowed to stay in the U.S. indefinitely, pending immigration proceedings that could be many years out,” McAleenan said.
But last week, the Department of Homeland Security said it was expanding the Migrant Protection Protocols to El Paso and would begin sending asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait until a judge in the U.S. decides their claim. The policy, originally called “remain in Mexico,” is in effect in Tijuana and Mexicali on the California border. It is not clear whether any asylum seekers in the El Paso area have been sent to Mexico yet.
During his visit to El Paso, McAleenan did not mention that policy, which would address his concern about families being allowed to wait in the U.S. for their court proceedings.
The three family detention facilities are nearly always at capacity and a court ruling prohibits holding children in detention for more than 20 days. McAleenan said ideally asylum cases would be decided by an immigration court judge within two months and during that time families would remain in a detention facility. “If they don’t have a valid claim, they’ll be repatriated. If they do, they’ll be released with certainty they have asylum,” he said.
McAleenan called on Congress to take action to “restore integrity to our immigration system” and alleviate the crisis.
“With continued inaction by Congress – it’s going to continue to put people at risk: the vulnerable migrants on the journey, in Mexico, as they cross our border in increasingly hot weather and our own personnel and unfortunately children in our custody,” he said.
Jackie White, Cabinet secretary for New Mexico Homeland Security and Emergency Management, also visited the border Wednesday and listened closely to the CBP commissioner’s comments.
“I was happy to hear that they (CBP) are now identifying that there is a humanitarian crisis,” White said. “That’s something our governor has been talking about since she came into office and even before that.”
White reiterated concerns about asylum seekers at the ports of entry being denied immediate entrance, encouraging them to cross the border elsewhere, including remote regions of New Mexico.
“We’d like to see that process be fixed,” she said. “We’re also asking for help at the state level, federal funding, so we can address these issues once we have folks coming into New Mexico.”
And White expressed concern about the reassignment of CBP officers from legal border crossings such as Santa Teresa.
“There’s an economic impact to that, as well,” she said. “We know we have a lot of commerce coming across the border that needs to be able to move.”