Border Patrol apprehensions on the Mexican border reached an 11-year high in February as families and children from Central America continue to arrive in record numbers, creating “both a border security and humanitarian crisis,” Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said Tuesday. The impact is being felt most acutely in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, he said, so CBP will open a new processing center to provide more efficiency and care in handling the modern face of migration.
“The El Paso sector alone has seen a 434 percent increase in apprehensions this fiscal year. The vast majority are family units and unaccompanied children arriving in large groups, which challenges the capacity in our facilities,” McAleenan said at a news conference in Washington, D.C. “Facilities housing migrants near El Paso have reached capacity and gone over capacity numerous times in this fiscal year … a situation that impacts both the efficiency of migrant processing and the quality of our care that we’re able to provide for detained migrants.”
McAleenan’s primary solution to the crisis—legislation that would allow for extended incarceration of children with their parents while courts decide their asylum claims—has been consistently rejected by Democrats. “It’s a terrible solution. It’s costly, it’s inhumane and it’s unnecessary,” U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said in an interview with Texas Monthly.
Border Patrol agents apprehended 66,450 people at the Southwest border in February, mostly families and children from Central America who sought out agents after crossing the border and requested asylum, CBP officials said. Another 10,000 people, labeled as inadmissible by the government, presented themselves at ports of entry without proper entry documents. Seventy-one percent of the apprehensions were in Texas-based Border Patrol sectors.
Last month’s apprehensions represented the highest February total since 2008, according to CBP records. In the 1990s and early 2000s, more than 100,000 monthly apprehensions were common in February. But most of those apprehended in past decades were single adults, mostly from Mexico, who were trying to evade Border Patrol agents and could be quickly deported when caught.
Now, most crossers are families or unaccompanied children from Central America seeking asylum. Because of immigration court backlogs, it likely will take years for asylum seekers to have their cases heard and court rulings prohibit the government from detaining families for lengthy periods. So they are allowed to live legally in the United States while their cases are heard, though the Trump administration vows to step up a new program that requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their legal claims are settled in U.S. courts.
“Historically, the U.S. Border Patrol has arrested 70 to 90 percent Mexican nationals. We can apply a consequence to that demographic. We could return them quickly to Mexico,” Brian Hastings, the Border Patrol’s chief of operations, said at Tuesday’s news conference. Now, 70 percent of those apprehended by the Border Patrol are from Central America, mostly families or children arriving without a parent or guardian. “So without a consequence, without being able to deliver a consequence to these individuals for illegally crossing our borders, the Border Patrol has no reason to expect that this trend will decrease; in fact we believe it will increase. It’s well known at this time that adults with children will not be detained during the immigration proceedings for illegal entry. The word of mouth and social media quickly gets back to those in the Northern Triangle countries that if you bring a child you’ll be successful,” Hastings said.
He said a major point of concern is an increase of groups of 100 or more who surrender simultaneously to Border Patrol agents and request asylum. Seventy groups of more than 100 migrants have been apprehended in the first five months of fiscal year 2019, Hastings said, compared to thirteen in all of FY 2018 and two in FY 2017. The Border Patrol has picked up intelligence reports that drug smugglers are using these large groups as a diversion that allows them to bring their loads into the United States, he said. Most of the large groups have crossed in the El Paso sector, particularly in remote areas of southern New Mexico, officials have said.
Escobar said Trump administration policies—particularly limiting access for asylum seekers to ports of entry in El Paso—are forcing migrants to make more dangerous journeys to remote areas of the border and overwhelming thinly staffed Border Patrol outposts. “It’s this government’s policy that is making the work of Border Patrol agents in rural areas so much more difficult,” she said.
The El Paso area was a particular focus of the CBP news conference, where McAleenan for the first time discussed a new $192 million central processing center in El Paso that was included in the recent funding bill that reopened the government after a 35-day partial shutdown. He provided few details of how the facility will operate and CBP officials didn’t respond to follow-up questions from Texas Monthly. “This will help us protect the health and safety of families and children in custody while streamlining operations and reducing the time that we’re holding families and children. The El Paso central processing center will provide one location for the processing of family units and children in an appropriate environment and will facilitate consistent medical assessments in one location,” McAleenan said. “I want to underscore a key point here. While our enhanced medical efforts and the creation of new facilities will assist with managing the increased flows and while we will continue to do all that we can to address these increases in traffic safely and humanely, the fact is that these solutions are temporary and this situation is not sustainable.”
He said migrants and smugglers are taking advantage of “vulnerabilities in our legal system” that Congress could fix. “These weaknesses in our immigration laws and accumulated court rulings now represent the most significant factors impacting border security and causing this humanitarian crisis. These include first and foremost the inability to keep families together while they complete expeditious and fair immigration proceedings. Instead, crossing with a child is a guarantee of a speedy release and an indefinite stay in the United States.”
Escobar said the Trump administration’s focus has been on creating policies that it believes will deter migrants from making the journey to the United States. That deterrence-focused strategy will continue to fail because of the desperate poverty and violence faced by people in the Northern Triangle of Central America, she said. “We’ve seen this administration go to great lengths to be as cruel as possible to these families. And we’ve seen that that has not worked as a deterrent,” Escobar said.
The El Paso congresswoman said McAleenan is one of the few Trump administration officials to talk about working with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to address the poverty, violence and insecurity that are the root causes of what she calls a “forced migration” from those countries. “That’s the only way we’re going to stem this flow,” Escobar said. “Obviously, we have different reasons to want to stem that flow. Some folks just don’t want migrants coming into our country. From my perspective, having spoken with these families, I know they don’t want to leave their country so it’s more of a humanitarian issue for me in wanting to make sure that people are able to live where they want to live, which is their home country, but to be able to live there safely and securely.”
McAleenan on Tuesday also outlined changes in medical care for migrants that CBP instituted after two Guatemalan children died in December while in the custody of the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector. The causes of death of the two children—7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin and 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonso—have not been made public by medical examiners who conducted autopsies in El Paso and Albuquerque. The New York Times on Tuesday reported that some migrants with serious illnesses or injuries continue to get little to no care while in Border Patrol custody. McAleenan said all children receive comprehensive health screenings while in custody and said CBP is expanding contracts to place health-care practitioners in high-traffic locations on the border.
U.S. Representative Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat who was an emergency room physician before being elected to Congress, said CBP has been “vague” about its medical care reforms and continues to house migrants in cramped detention facilities in conditions that spread disease. “We still have a long way to go to ensure that we create a set of humanitarian standards that they would be held accountable to, as well as ensuring that all individuals have a meaningful health assessment with the appropriate level of care in order to prevent the loss of life of children and women and elderly that they are now detaining. It’s also very important to note that when CBP detains a family or any migrant then they are legally responsible for that family and they’re legally responsible to meet their humanitarian needs as well as any medical risks or needs that may arise,” Ruiz said in an interview with Texas Monthly.