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Former DHS Chief Chad Wolf: Perverse Incentives Fueling Border Crisis

In February alone, illegal border crossings hit over 100,000 and are projected to increase further. What is really happening at the U.S. border, and what are the causes of this surge?

Today, we sit down with Chad Wolf, former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security and now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who gives his take on the border crisis: patrol agents being pulled off the line, the surge in unaccompanied minors, and abuse of the asylum process.

Jan Jekielek: Secretary Wolf, it’s such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Sec. Chad Wolf: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Mr. Jekielek: There’s a lot of different messaging coming out about what’s happening at the border right now. Some people are calling it an unmitigated crisis. Others are declining to call it a crisis and saying that there are humane efforts being put in, that things were inhumane before. A whole lot of messaging, as I discussed. You have your ear to the ground. What are you actually seeing on the border? What are you hearing from folks that are there?

Sec. Wolf: At this point in time, I’m calling this an unprecedented crisis, not only because we’re going to probably have 20-year highs as far as the illegal apprehensions there on the southwest border, but also the number of steps that you see DHS, HHS, and really the entire administration taking. These are steps that haven’t been taken before, whether it’s FEMA down there or whether it’s allowing illegal immigrants to be released into the country without a court date. These are things that the department’s never done before because we’ve never had this type of surge and capacity issues along the borders.

It’s certainly a crisis in my book. It’s a crisis to everyone that I’ve talked to, and I’ve talked to a variety of different folks, typically Border Patrol that’s on the line dealing with this day in and day out. They are frustrated. They are concerned about this. You have to think in RGV [Rio Grande Valley], which is like ground zero for this surge on the Texas-Mexico border, almost 50 percent of Border Patrol agents are now pulled off the line in Border Patrol facilities and are just trying to feed and take care of a large number of individuals.

This means they’re not doing their national security mission. What they’re trained for, what they go to the Border Patrol Academy for, they’re not on that line doing that mission. Instead, they’re inside Border Patrol facilities, again, doing the care and feeding for these migrants, which is a cause of concern because you then have cartels taking advantage of that, criminals taking advantage of that, smuggling additional folks as well as drugs and other contraband. In all cases, in my book, in my opinion, we have a crisis going on at the border today.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s interesting, what you describe with these Border Patrol agents being taken off the line. It almost feels like it could be an accelerating situation because of that. Is that what you’re saying?

Sec. Wolf: Absolutely. The concern here is when you have so many folks that are in Border Patrol facilities and coming over and there’s no end in sight for this. The more that come over, the more that you have to take care of. There is a responsibility that the department has to make sure that these individuals are cared for before they are either turned over to HHS or released or repatriated back to their home countries.

But when you see such a surge, such a high number of individuals coming over, Border Patrol doesn’t have that capacity, so they have to pull people in from other positions to do that. When you do that, you take away the capability that they should be doing, their everyday job, their national security mission, and that’s the concern. The surge of individuals is not only one concern, but it’s how the cartels, the smugglers, and the traffickers then take advantage of that. We know they do because we saw it in 2019.

Mr. Jekielek: The numbers have been increasing since September 2020. That’s what I understand. Some of what I’ve heard from a number of people is that this is just part of the natural surge, a cyclical process, that doesn’t have to do with policy. What are your thoughts?

Sec. Wolf: I’ve heard that as well. I think a number of folks have tried to offer that explanation as a way to explain or justify what is going on, and I think that’s really an inaccurate description. Yes, there are parts of the year, different months, that are higher traffic times, and we see numbers increase, but that does not explain over 100,000 folks in the month of February. Over 100,000 folks in February was the highest February that we have seen in I think 20 years, and so it doesn’t explain that.

In March, the month concludes here and the numbers will come out shortly thereafter, you’re likely to see over 140,000 illegal apprehensions in the month of March. You got to remember, that’s equaling about 4000 to 4500 folks a day, and those are just the ones that Border Patrol catches. It’s estimated that there’s anywhere from another 1000 to 1500 what we call “gotaways.” These are folks that Border Patrol never sees, but because of camera images, radar images, and then foot traffic patterns in the sand, Border Patrol is able to estimate those folks that they never saw, that got away. So there’s an enormous amount of traffic coming across that border today. It’s very concerning.

Mr. Jekielek: Our border reporter who’s down there in Texas right now, Charlotte Cuthbertson, she just had an article with an anonymous Border Patrol agent speaking with her. He’s saying, “I’m at my wit’s end. The people around me are at their wit’s end.” He’s actually saying that there are even people who are basically calling in sick because they just can’t handle the pressure. Are you hearing anything like this? Where does this go?

Sec. Wolf: Yes, I am. I’m hearing very similar stories from frontline officers. I think at the end of the day, they’re looking for leadership. They’re looking for leadership from the department, the White House, and elsewhere. This is the real concern when you have political leadership going on TV and saying that the border is secure, the border is closed, and then Border Patrol officers are apprehending thousands of individuals every single day that are coming across illegally.

There are pictures—Border Patrol stations are full of folks. A couple of days ago, we had over 10,000 in custody at CBP [Customs and Border Protection] facilities. In November 2020, so that’s about four months ago, it was 800. So absolutely, they are exhausted, they’re probably very frustrated, but they’re also looking for a plan: How does this end? How do we address this issue?

This administration, unfortunately, is treating this as a capacity issue. If you throw enough people at it, if you throw enough resources, if you expand the pool, then they believe they can solve it. I think that’s the wrong approach. You have to address the illegal activity, the behavior, and hold people accountable. Otherwise, if you just simply open up more centers, provide more care, you’re just incentivizing more and more folks to come. So I think Border Patrol officers on the front line are asking themselves: When does this end? I don’t see an end in sight because there’s a lack of enforcement measures being taken right now by the administration.

Mr. Jekielek: I hope this is a fair characterization. I understand the position of the administration is that the policies that you put in were basically inhumane, some have described them as immoral, and they were forced to basically remove a number of these policies and now they’re just trying to deal with that, so there are some challenges. I hope that’s a fair characterization.

Sec. Wolf: During the Trump administration, if we just look at asylum, we hired over 500 asylum officers. We actually moved refugee officers over to process asylum claims because when we came in 2017, we had a backlog of over 300,000 asylum claims to adjudicate, which meant a lot of folks were filing fraudulent claims and it was taking years and years and years to adjudicate. The first three years of the Trump administration, that’s 2017, 2018, and 2019, we issued more asylum claims than any three years of the entire eight-year Obama presidency. So the facts don’t back up some of their claims.

I’ve heard that as well. Of course, they don’t really go into detail. What specifically are they talking about? I think they throw that talking point out there, hoping that resonates with people without really explaining what they are referring to. They talk about inheriting a broken immigration and asylum system in its entirety, which I would argue: what specifically?

They also talked about a Central American minors program that the Trump administration withdrew. We did because what we saw over a number of years is very few minors actually qualified for asylum. There were a lot of resources, a lot of effort, into that program, and it was only under 2000 minors who actually qualified for asylum, and there are other ways that children can come into the country. We didn’t find it was a good use of resources.

There’s a variety of different things. They talk about inheriting a broken immigration system—I just don’t see that. What we did is we fixed a lot of fraud in the immigration system. We tore down “catch and release;” they have reinstituted “catch and release.” If they’re referring that we dismantled “catch and release,” then yes, I would agree with them. I think most Americans would agree that is not a functioning immigration process or system.

As we look going forward, the current administration is actually using a number of Trump-era policies to effectuate their current immigration policy. They’re just not talking about them in large detail. They’re using Title 42 which is a Trump-era public health notice to turn individuals back around. We can talk a little bit more about that. They’re using temporary shelters that we built during the Trump administration, they’re using hotels that we used during the Trump administration, and they’re leaning on Mexico which was a core tenet of what we did over the last several years in trying to stem that immigration flow.

So in some ways, they’re using our playbook, but they’re talking about it differently, and they’re not being as effective. It goes against their argument that we tore down this entire system that they’re having to rebuild from scratch, because they’re not doing that. They’re actually utilizing, as they should, a lot of the good policies, effective policies, that we implemented over the last several years.

Mr. Jekielek: I do want to dig into Title 42 a little bit, but maybe we can do that in a second. One of the things that was stricken very quickly was the “Remain in Mexico” program, for example, cited as being one of these highly problematic ones. What is the impact of that in your mind?

Sec. Wolf: I think you see that on the border today. MPP [Migrant Protection Protocols] was important for a number of reasons. One, it rooted out fraud in the asylum system. What we know is anywhere from 85-90 percent of individuals claiming and filing asylum claims do not qualify at the end of the day. [When] they go before an immigration judge, the immigration judge says: you have no claim for this.

The idea was, we wanted to make sure that we sped up the process because it was taking upwards of a year to get in front of that immigration judge. We wanted to root out that fraud so that we could get people into their asylum claim, into the immigration system quickly. If you really are claiming asylum, you’re fearing [for] your life, you’ll have no problem waiting in Mexico because [it’s] safe there. You have no problem.

Folks that were waiting there, knowing that they would go straight to an immigration judge and they wouldn’t be released into the U.S., left because they knew if they got in front of an immigration judge, their claim was likely not going to be valid. The vast majority of them, but not all, their goal is to get into the U.S., be released into the U.S., and we know a lot of them do not show up for those immigration court hearings. They’re here in the U.S., and that’s their goal at the end of the day, whether it’s for a job, whether it’s to reunify with family members, but that’s not asylum. There are other ways to come into the country. It’s very concerning.

MPP was designed to address that issue. It was working, [but] we had, obviously, COVID during the middle of that, so a lot of those hearings stopped. Just as courthouses around the country shut down and weren’t taking cases, our MPP courts along the border had to stop as well, so you had a lot of folks in those facilities along the Mexican border. It wasn’t because we were moving slow, it wasn’t because we were trying to drag it out, it’s because we were dealing with COVID at the same time.

I’ve heard of a lot of different criticisms of that program. I would say if you have concerns about MPP and you have concerns about some of the facilities in Mexico, then the answer is to work with Mexico. The answer is to push Mexico to improve those facilities. You can even provide some state department funding to the government of Mexico to improve those facilities, but the answer can’t be: let’s shut them down and bring everyone into the U.S. That’s not how the asylum system works. That’s the approach the current administration is using, and I disagree with that.

Mr. Jekielek: There were also some agreements that you made with Central American countries around asylum and so forth that were stricken down. How does that play out?

Sec. Wolf: The Asylum Cooperative Agreements, the ACAs, that we had signed with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, were also pulled down. I don’t know if it was day one but it was definitely during the first week. The idea there was to make sure that those individuals who were seeking protection could do so closest to their home. So if you’re from El Salvador, you could seek asylum in Guatemala. There are parts of Guatemala and there are places in Guatemala, just like every other country, that are safe.

Some are not safe but some areas are safe, and they have functioning asylum systems in those countries, so you can seek protection. The idea was to do that so that when conditions in your home country improve, you can go back and be a part of that country, that society, open up businesses and do that. We wanted to make sure that we are investing in the future of those countries as well.

Again, this administration hasn’t really explained it. I guess because it was just a Trump policy, they decided to pull that back at the end of the day. What’s interesting is today, they are talking about providing that protection closest to home; registering in those countries for the protection. That’s what that ACA was all about, so it’s unfortunate that they pulled those down as well.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s interesting. Are there other policies that were taken down, top of mind for you, that are problematic?

Sec. Wolf: I think you got to look at them in their entirety and as a whole—obviously, they stopped border wall construction. Whether you think that’s effective or it’s not—and I’m happy to talk to you about why it is effective, that it sends a signal to the smugglers and traffickers in the cartels. You do away with Title 42 or UAC’s and to a certain extent, families, which they are doing today. You take down the ACA’s. You take down NPP and all of this starts to work together to start sending a signal that the border is now open. We are not removing people. Then you issue guidance to ICE, which they did in the early days of the administration that restricts ICE’s ability to remove individuals that are here illegally.

I’ve heard leadership, both in the department and the White House, talk about the rule of law, that we are a country of laws and that we have an asylum process here and we have to adjudicate asylum claims, which I agree with. But you can’t say that and then say: I’m going to restrict ICE’s ability to remove those who don’t qualify for asylum. Part of the law is you can apply for asylum. If you are granted it, then you stay here. If not, you need to be removed back to your home country.

But what the department’s done is restricted ICE officer’s ability to remove those individuals. So they can’t have it both ways. You can’t say I want a functioning asylum system, but for those who don’t qualify and are here in the U.S., I’m not going to remove you. It doesn’t it doesn’t work that way.

Mr. Jekielek: Tell me a little bit about Title 42. What is that and how does it play out?

Sec. Wolf: Title 42 is a public health order from the CDC given to DHS back in 2020 at the height of COVID. What that said is Border Patrol facilities and DHS facilities writ large are not conducive to a pandemic like COVID. You can’t socially distance. You can’t keep that separation that you need, the ventilation, everything that you would need for COVID facilities, they don’t have. They weren’t designed for that. The public health order says you cannot bring folks into congregate settings like that.

So if you encounter someone coming into the country illegally, just illegally, you need to remove them back to the country that they came from, in this case, Mexico or their home countries. What Title 42 allowed us to do was to keep communities along that southwest border safe, keep our Border Patrol officers safe, frontline men and women of DHS safe and not having to interact.

Because obviously, a lot of the illegal migrants that they pick up have no identification and have no medical history with them. Some have never been vaccinated for anything. So having to deal with that in a COVID environment, CDC said you shouldn’t do that. So what it allowed us to do at DHS during my tenure was to turn those individuals around—single adults, families, and UAC’s.

Unlike what the department would like you to believe and folks in the White House, we weren’t turning UAC’s right around to Mexico and leaving them in the desert. That’s almost a direct quote. That’s not what was happening. If we had a UAC from El Salvador or Guatemala or Honduras, we would take them in, we would care for them and we would coordinate with the consulate. Then we would remove them on a flight back to their home country and reunite them with their family. That’s what that process was.

But this administration decided to end that for UAC’s, decided to stop doing that. They announced that, and when they did that, what they did was send a signal. They announced it to cartels, smugglers, and traffickers. You get a kid, you get a minor to the border, they’re staying here in the U.S., we’re no longer removing them. So that’s why you see a UAC flood. That’s why you see over 5000 in custody today. At the height of the 2019 crisis it was about 2600. It’s almost more than double because the signal is given. As long as they make it to the border, they will remain here, which was a very different signal than we were giving them.

Mr. Jekielek: What this Border Patrol officer was telling Charlotte was that a number of the UAC’s, unaccompanied minors just in case anyone missed that, just come with addresses saying take me to this place. In fact, many of them, that’s what I understand. So to your point, there is evidence.

Sec. Wolf: There’s extreme evidence. We see a variety of different things. We see families traveling together all the way to the border. Then we see families pushing their children across the border by themselves. So the family is now choosing to separate themselves from the child, because they know that that child has a better chance to stay in the US than the parents do at this point.

So they’ll push them across and you’re exactly right, they usually have a number and an address pinned to them, which is a member of their family, most likely. In some cases, that family member could also be an illegal alien. We encounter that as well. We grew very frustrated during the Trump administration. We would often say that we are the last chain in that human smuggling link process. That concerned us and we tried to reform that as best we could.

But again, what you see out of this administration, that’s a significant pull factor. They have to address the UAC issue. Otherwise, that’s going to continue to occur day after day, month after month. At the end of March when the numbers have come out, you’re going to see even higher UAC numbers. It was predicted by May it could be even 13,000 in one month, which is astronomical. You’ve never seen numbers like that, because they are sending the signal that it’s okay for a child, however they do it, get them there and they’ll be let in. And as long as that’s the signal they’re sending, it’s going to continue unabated.

Mr. Jekielek: I’ve been seeing all sorts of statistics about how much abuse happens to people, because it’s the cartels that are actually moving these people across the border. It’s almost like you have to do it that way. Otherwise, it’s not going to go well for you. The cartels make sure if everyone knows that.

There’s this question, I was talking actually with our producer the other day about this. It seems like the migrants are going to quite extreme measures to try to get in with the knowledge that someone might be hurt, someone might be raped. It would seem to suggest that there is some kind of credible reason to be coming across if they’re willing to risk all these different problems along the way.

Sec. Wolf: I don’t disagree. There are some very serious conditions going on in Central America. But you have to do that within the confines of U.S. law. Just coming across the border claiming asylum and hoping to be released into the country while your asylum claim is heard 12 or 13 months later can’t be the system that we have, because we know they don’t qualify for asylum.

Asylum is very specific under U.S. law. It’s persecution under a couple of different instances. Just because in your home country, the economy is bad because of COVID for a variety of different reasons or there are gangs in your country, all of those together don’t necessarily mean that you qualify for asylum. If you’re being persecuted by your home government, perhaps you need to qualify for asylum and there are additional cases. So it’s very specific on whether you qualify for asylum or not.

To answer your question though, I think all of these individuals are seeing, “I have an opportunity—if I get to the border, if I get to the U.S., there’s an opportunity. I can have a good job, I can probably reunite with some family members that are already there.” I understand that. I think we have to address that. That is not asylum.

So allowing these individuals to cross illegally and go into the asylum process, knowing that 85 to 90 percent don’t qualify. In my mind, that’s a very inhumane policy and message that you’re sending them. In a sense, this administration is encouraging them to come to the border, but knowing that they won’t qualify, meaning that they have to return them back to their home country. You are asking them to take a very dangerous journey, as you indicated to cross that border. It’s all controlled by cartels and smugglers. You’re paying a price.

No one’s coming across that border illegally on their own. They’re all paying a price, and there’s certainly violence associated with that. Then it’s very expensive. Some of these folks are spending their life savings trying to get to the border. If you’re only going to know that you’re going to be removed back to your home country within a matter of weeks, that’s an inhumane message at the end of the day. They need to be more forceful about not doing this illegally, doing it in the way that’s occurring now.

Mr. Jekielek: Mexican President Obrador, to your point, has described President Biden as the migrant president. He was saying that this is what the migrants are saying. We’ve also heard that there are these buildups of troops related to this whole situation on the Mexican border. Do you have any ears and eyes on what’s happening in Mexico right now?

Sec. Wolf: I would agree with that. What the Biden administration is doing is they’re down in Mexico, I believe, today, over the last several days, talking to the Mexican government. Usually what that conversation is going to be about is how can Mexico increase its enforcement, not only on its northern border with the U.S., but also on its southern border. A lot of these folks are transiting Mexico, so how can they clamp down on that?

Again, that’s something that we talk to them almost on a daily basis about. We had them deploy a number of troops down there to address their porous southern border. That’s a real concern. It’s what should be done. I’m surprised it’s taken them almost eight weeks to do this. They should have done this on day one. If they knew that they were going to roll back some of these measures and some of these policies, it should have been in conjunction with a stronger enforcement side of the House, such as leaning on Mexico to do more. It’s the right stance. It’s just coming eight weeks into a crisis, which is going to be very, very difficult to mitigate at the end of the day.

But to address your question, yes, absolutely. We’ve seen from a number of migrants who have been interviewed by news media and by press and have been interviewed by CBP agents, and of course, the Mexican president saying this as well. They get asked, “Why did you make the journey?” Almost all of them are saying, “Because I’ve heard from President Biden or the administration that it’s okay to come.”

So you’re sending signals one way or another. A lot of their message for the first seven weeks was, “You can come. Just don’t come now.” That’s a nuanced message that’s lost on these migrants. All they hear is you can come, and they’re coming. But messaging aside, most of these folks don’t listen to government officials.

All they listen to is their family or friends who have come in and are staying and remaining in the U.S., for whatever reason. That’s who they’re listening to. If they see that happening, that flow is going to continue. It’s only when they see relatives and family and friends being removed back to their home country or not being led into the U.S. It’s only then that the surge is going to abate.

Mr. Jekielek: Given everything that you see now, how policy has changed, what policies have remained, what is the quickest route to a solution for the administration, in your view?

Sec. Wolf: It’s utilizing Title 42, and you have to utilize that for both families and UAC’s. Those are the two populations that are most concerning right now. It’s the ones that you see in Border Patrol stations and HHS facilities and the like. They have the authority to do that. They’re not using it for UAC’s, and they need to. They need to use it. They’re also using it half, I would say 50 percent, for families.

They keep talking about how they’re removing families. But in the month of February, they only removed about 40 percent using Title 42. I’ve seen numbers in the month of March, it can be as low as 14 percent. That’s a concern, because we were removing almost all of them. They need to continue to use Title 42.

They need to reinstitute the ACA or the asylum cooperative agreements. Those are international agreements that were negotiated that were just killed outright, even if they never planned to use those agreements. This is important. Those agreements could have just sat on the shelf and they could have been silent about them. But instead, they went out and publicly said that they were doing away with them, which again, is another pull factor.

What we know is the migrants and the smugglers and the cartels listen to everything that we’re saying and then advertise that to folks trying to come up. Then MPP. I know they don’t like MPP. But there’s got to be a version of that that will help this surge at the end of the day, and to get those folks into immigration courts quickly.

Mr. Jekielek: What about the messaging then? Because you kept mentioning messaging. The Biden administration has said, “Don’t come.”

Sec. Wolf: Yes, but it’s almost too late. We are eight weeks into this crisis. You have people that have left their home country 20 days ago, they’re still on this path coming up. We’ll see if some of their messaging actually works. What I found in my experience, U.S. officials, Mexican officials and others will continue to message. You have to continue to message. Its effectiveness is questionable.

Migrants just are not listening to us government officials. They listen to action. They listen to what is going on on the ground. Do we have MPP? Do we have to wait in Mexico? I don’t want to do that. I’m not going to travel. The children that we send up there, are they returning home within a matter of weeks? Well, I’m not going to spend money to send them. Actions speak louder than words in this case, and they can change the messaging. But if they don’t change any of their policies and have a different enforcement posture, then again, the crisis is going to continue.

Mr. Jekielek: Acting Secretary Wolf, such a pleasure to have you on.

Sec. Wolf: Thank you for having me.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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