WASHINGTON—The commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said on March 6, that the abnormally high numbers of migrants—most from Central America—paired with broken U.S. immigration laws, has created a “border security and humanitarian crisis” that has been taken advantage of by smugglers and drug cartels.
Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said apprehensions at the border were higher in February—over 76,000—than they’ve been in any February for over a decade, and that because U.S. immigration laws are different for children and families coming from Central America—where about 70 percent of the migrants are coming from—CBP has become overwhelmed.
“These flows have border security consequences,” he said. “Families and children are routinely used to divert our agents and occupy them while smugglers bring illicit drugs and single adults that are trying to evade capture across our border.”
In addition to the onslaught of illegal immigrants, the number of asylum seekers jumped 120 percent in FY 2018 compared to FY 2017.
After days, and sometimes weeks of travel, he says those arriving at the border often come with injuries and illnesses that U.S. law enforcement agencies are then responsible for treating. This fact was brought to center stage with the deaths of two children last December who were taken into CBP custody. The causes of their deaths are still under investigation.
“Issues where doctors have advised that this child needs surgery within two weeks to repair this, and they get on a bus to head all the way to the U.S. border and report that to the agent as they arrive,” he said. “We’ve seen all manner of medical conditions.”
As an example of how much care they need, he said CBP made a high of 130 hospital trips in one day last week, with an average of 55 trips a day.
“That means we spent 6,000 hours of border patrol agents waiting at the hospital with people,” he said. “That’s like losing 30 agents for the year.”
To tackle the issue, he suggested a three-pronged approach: fix U.S. immigration laws, reinforce the border, and work with other countries to stop the flow of migrants.
On the legal side, he suggested amending the Flores Settlement, under which a family unit cannot be held in custody for more than 20 days.
Once asylum seekers are released into the country, it often takes years for their cases to be processed. McAleenan recommends keeping them in detention—as a family unit—until their cases have been settled. In that scenario, he estimates it would take six to eight weeks.
He also thinks it could have an effect on the number of children being smuggled into the country with unrelated adults to act as family units.
In the last 10 months, 1,700 people made false claims of being in a family with children they weren’t related to. In a few cases, he said, the adults met the children for the first time at the U.S.-Mexico border.
He says smugglers are advertising to prospective clients that they will be released into the United States if they have a child with them. “And they’re right,” he said.
“It’s difficult for me to conceive of any policy we could adopt that could do more, quite perversely, to promote human trafficking than this,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said in the hearing.
“I think that’s a very legitimate concern,” McAleenan responded.
McAleenan also suggested that the bar to prove credible fear—the standard an asylum seeker needs to meet to remain in the country—is too low, citing statistics showing that the majority of those who apply for asylum meet the credible fear threshold, but only a fraction turn out to qualify for asylum.
Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), children from Central America cannot be repatriated like those from Canada and Mexico, another U.S. law that McAleenan said adds to the backup in the system. Less than 2 percent of Central American children are repatriated because of it, he said.
He would like to see TVPA amended so that children can be sent back to their country—in some cases at the request of their home country—an amendment that he believes would go a long ways toward preventing child trafficking.
Along with better immigration laws, he says human traffickers are taking advantage of the porous U.S.-Mexico border to smuggle people across undetected. More funding for personnel and technology would help, but he also said there needs to be a barrier.
“We need to maintain what we have, the 654 miles, and we need hundreds of additional miles in critical areas where we have difficulty controlling,” he said.
The deployment of several thousand active-duty troops by the Department of Defense (DoD) was based off requests by CBP, he said, although he denied requesting a specific number of personnel.
“We have significant need for additional border security barrier, for surveillance capability, and for agents, so having DoD backfill that, to create impedance and denial in certain areas, is a real mission enhancement for us,” he said.
Part of mitigating the tide of illegal immigrants to the country requires looking at the factors that are pushing these migrants toward the United States, and McAleenan suggested that more aid to the Northern Triangle of Central America, where the majority of migrants come from, would be wise.
In December, the State Department announced it was committing $5.8 billion—in public and private investment—to the Northern Triangle to promote institutional reforms and development. It said it would also commit another $2.5 billion “if commercially viable projects are identified.”
But there is another country involved in the crisis that shares at least part of the blame, according to McAleenan, and that is Mexico. It is in Mexico that the cartels, which control human and drug trafficking over the border, are based.
“Partnership with Mexico is essential,” McAleenan said.
The United States creates the demand for the drugs that the cartels sell, “but we need the government of Mexico to step up and address the enforcement side of this,” McAleenan said.
When asked whether Mexico could be doing more than it is, he said he thinks the new administration of President López Obrador is working on “making sure any immigration is safe and orderly, and that enforcement posture is improved.”