With hundreds of migrants huddled under a nearby bridge, the top U.S. border enforcement official on Wednesday made his strongest statement yet on the tens of thousands of migrant families now crossing the Mexican border. “Two weeks ago I briefed the media and testified in Congress that our immigration system was at the breaking point. That breaking point has arrived this week at the border,” Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said at a news conference near El Paso’s Paso del Norte Bridge.
McAleenan described the situation as a humanitarian and national security crisis. Democrats have agreed with the first sentiment and rejected the latter. The commissioner’s proposed solutions—allowing for longer-term detention of families and easing restrictions on deporting unaccompanied children who aren’t from Mexico or Canada—weren’t a priority for Republicans in the two years they controlled both houses of Congress in addition to the White House, critics say, and have been repeatedly rejected by Democrats.
“On Monday and Tuesday, CBP started the day with over 12,000 migrants in our custody. As of this morning that number was 13,400. A high number for us is 4,000. A crisis level is 6,000. Thirteen thousand is unprecedented,” McAleenan said. Included in that number are hundreds of people being held beneath the Paso del Norte Bridge, behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. CBP has set up a tent under the bridge to allow some of the migrants to get out of the elements. Migrants typically stay there less than 24 hours before being moved to other facilities, officials said. After McAleenan concluded his press conference, dozens of migrants pushed up against the fence as media came over to them. They cheered when a group of four protesters began chanting “No estan solos” (you are not alone) and other slogans.
The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee criticized CBP for placing hundreds of people under the bridge. “There is no legitimate reason for migrants to be held in horrid conditions or encamped under bridges. The Department of Homeland Security has the means to process individuals in an orderly and timely way. Unfortunately, rather than using whatever credibility the department has left to address the situation, the administration is using propaganda to further its anti-immigrant agenda,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi.
McAleenan said 100,000 people are expected to be taken into custody at the border in March, the highest monthly total since 2008. The number of migrants crossing the border is below the highs of twenty years ago, but the nature of current crossers is vastly different than what the Border Patrol is trained and equipped to handle. In the past, most people taken into custody by the Border Patrol were single Mexican men who were trying to sneak into the United States to look for temporary work. Such people could be quickly deported once apprehended. But two-thirds of today’s migrants are families or unaccompanied children from Central America who seek out and surrender to Border Patrol agents and request asylum after crossing the border illegally. They generally can’t be deported without action in an immigration court system that has a huge backlog. That change has unfolded since 2014, but both the Obama and Trump administrations, as well as Congress, have done little to respond to the new face of migration.
The White House has been almost singularly focused on building more physical barriers on the border as a way to address the growing migration, which is primarily from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But McAleenan never mentioned barriers in his 20-minute news conference, even though he was speaking in front of a decade-old steel fence. The hundreds of migrants nearby had all crossed in parts of El Paso with extensive barriers. But the barriers are about a hundred yards north of the Rio Grande that marks the international boundary. Large groups of migrants now routinely walk across the shallow river, move to the fence and wait for Border Patrol agents to come to them.
McAleenan announced on Wednesday that his agency was temporarily moving 750 Customs and Border Protection agents assigned to ports of entry on the Southwest border to assist the Border Patrol with caring for and processing migrant families. “There will be an impact on traffic at the border. There will be a slowdown in the processing of trade. There will be wait times 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. The week leading up to Easter historically is among the busiest times for border crossers as people cross back and forth to visit families. Extended delays in processing trade likely will impact the economy of Texas, which does nearly $200 billion annually in trade with Mexico.
McAleenan said current laws and court decisions serve as an incentive for families to cross the border, even if they have little chance of winning asylum. “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,” he said. He called on Congress to pass laws that allow for children to be detained beyond the 20 days currently allowed under a decades-old court settlement, and to amend the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to make it easier to deport children who come from countries that aren’t contiguous to the United States.
McAleenan’s call for congressional action is “cynical,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso-based group that advocates for migrants, immigrants and refugees. “He could have said that to the Republican Congress just a few weeks ago, a few months ago. But it seems that since the administration lost Congress, now it seems that some of their officials are interested in putting the blame on Congress for a crisis that they had created,” Garcia said.
He pointed to last year’s implementation of “metering,” or limiting access of asylum seekers to ports of entry. CBP officials said the redeployment of personnel from the ports to help process migrants will place even greater limits on the numbers of people allowed to request asylum at ports, the method Trump administration officials have repeatedly said is the proper means for seeking asylum. “He (McAleenan) mentioned that there are a lot of criminal organizations helping the smuggling of refugees. Well, if there is, this is due to their enforcement of the border. Why? Because those refugees, those asylum seekers, they could come through ports of entry legally but what the administration is doing is turning them back to Mexico and then those families, they get desperate, then decide to cross between ports of entry. That is the fabrication of the crisis. Instead of allowing those asylum seekers to come to the port of entry they are forcing them to come between ports of entry,” Garcia said.
Thompson, the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, expressed similar sentiments. “The situation at the southern border is further proof President Trump’s border security and immigration policies are a complete failure, and his administration deserves much of the blame for making this humanitarian crisis worse. The Department of Homeland Security continues to block families trying to present themselves at our ports of entry, pushing them to areas between the ports of entry and adding additional stress to our border and immigration system,” he said.