By the hundreds of thousands, Central American families and children without their parents migrated to the southwest border. They were pushed by the threat of violence and by economic hardships. They were pulled in by the chance at a good job in a booming U.S. economy. They were lured by smugglers dangling a false promise that if they bring their children, they will get to stay in the U.S.
Between October 2018 and September (the U.S. government’s fiscal year), CBP law enforcement personnel apprehended or have deemed inadmissible nearly a million illegal immigrants crossing the southwest border, the most in nearly 15 years.
CBP had to address the humanitarian crisis while enforcing hundreds of laws and regulations, keeping Americans safe by intercepting dangerous drugs and criminals crossing the border, and facilitating legitimate trade and travel at 328 U.S. ports of entry.
“McAllen [Texas] was hit really, really hard,” said Ben Stern, a supervisory Border Patrol agent from Maine, one of hundreds of agents and officers deployed to address the crisis. One of his assignments was to help process illegal aliens after they were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, the area with the highest number of apprehensions in FY 2019. At the height of apprehensions in May, the entire Rio Grande Valley Sector averaged more than 1,600 each day, compared to just 560 a day in May 2018. “Our role was as a holding facility until they could be transported elsewhere for processing [by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or Health and Human Services facilities]. It was pretty chaotic at times.”
In previous decades, the U.S. government built Border Patrol stations on the Southwest border for agents to quickly process and remove adult males from Mexico, which was the predominant demographic apprehended by agents. In 2019, agents apprehended mostly families and unaccompanied children from Central America, a demographic that pushed stations over capacity do to requirements for children in custody.
The U.S. government’s inability to remove these populations were due to several factors including a recent court-imposed, 20-day limit on the government’s authority maintain custody of children. With no other options to facilitate immigration proceedings while in custody, CBP had to release families and provide notices to appear before an immigration court at a future date. With the help of smugglers, news quickly spread throughout Central America that if you cross the border with a child, you can stay in the U.S for good.
“Nationwide, CBP’s apprehensions for [fiscal year] 2019 totaled 1,148,000, more than 970,000 along the Southwest Border alone,” CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said in an Oct. 29 news conference in El Paso, Texas. “This is a staggering 88% higher than the fiscal year 2018. These are numbers that no immigration system in the world can handle, not even this country.”
Additionally, the Border Patrol estimates that more than 150,000 individuals successfully evaded capture and disappeared into border communities in FY 2019.
“Border security is national security — there is no difference — and the crisis on our southwest border puts our national security at risk,” U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost told a House subcommittee dealing with Homeland Security, June 20.
The more than 970,000 illegal aliens trying to enter the country illegally along the southwest border in the last year is nearly twice the amount in the same period a year earlier.
In some sectors, the U.S. Border Patrol diverted up to 60% of its agents from the border security mission to care for families and children, significantly reducing agents’ presence on the border.
“On a daily basis, agents are feeding and caring for migrants, consoling children, and rescuing over 4,000 aliens that smugglers have placed into peril,” Brian Hastings, chief of law enforcement operations for the Border Patrol told the House Judiciary Committee July 25. “They continue to perform the humanitarian mission, knowing they are sacrificing the border security mission they were hired to do, day after day, with no end in sight.”
The crisis depleted ICE’s detention capacity and greatly overwhelmed its resources. That caused the Border Patrol to hold migrants in overcrowded conditions rather than moving them to ICE’s facilities designed for longer-term custody. Without this outlet, the Border Patrol was compelled to hold detainees much longer than it should.
In fact, holding 4,000 people in custody at one time is a crisis. At its height, the agency had nearly 20,000 in custody.
“Our Border Patrol facilities … were not designed to hold families or children,” Acting Commissioner Morgan said in another news conference earlier in October. “They were designed as police stations. And because of that, because of the new demographic of families and children, those resources became strained, and our limited resources had to be diverted from their law enforcement duties, securing the border, to address the humanitarian crisis. Make no mistake: Our country was less safe because of it.”
Various media and government sources have identified a number of drivers for this unprecedented migration across the region. Push factors include violence, insecurity and famine in various parts of the Northern Triangle countries of Central America. Pull factors include a booming U.S. economy, outdated immigration laws on top of recent court rulings have created loopholes in the U.S. immigration enforcement system, and transnational smugglers who advertise easy admission to the United States as part of a multi-billion-dollar criminal enterprise.
Central American migrants believed U.S. officials would admit them to the United States, if they crossed the border with a child. A recent court ruling limits families and children during immigration proceedings, and most were released into the United States within days. Meanwhile, the illegal aliens were allowed to stay while their asylum claims make it through the courts, a process so backlogged it lasts for years. It’s a fact not lost on the criminal organizations profiting off the exploitation of migrants.
“This perception about our immigration system incentivizes migrants to put their lives in the hands of smugglers and make the dangerous trek north to our southwest border,” Acting Commissioner Morgan wrote in remarks submitted to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on July 30. “We see the cost of these pull and push factors every day in profits derived by transnational criminal organizations, in the lives lost along the journey, and in the flight of generations of youth from the countries of the Northern Triangle.”
Up to 60% of Border Patrol agents’ time was diverted to care for the humanitarian needs of the illegal aliens apprehended. Agents taking migrants to a hospital, for example, are not available to stop drug smugglers or other illegal crossings when large groups are encountered, Chief Patrol Agent Rodolfo Karisch, the sector chief in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in April.
“The bad guys know this,” he said. “They know our resources are stretched thin in addressing the humanitarian issue, which undermines our border security operations. They direct the movement of large groups into certain border areas as a diversion to facilitate the smuggling of drugs.”
Even without such nefarious intentions, the large number of families challenged CBP’s ability to process and provide for those in custody.
“These families are not concerned with being caught by the Border Patrol; they are actually turning themselves in, knowing that they will be processed and released with a court date years in the future,” Brian Hastings, chief of the Border Patrol’s law enforcement operations Hastings said in written statement to a Senate committee in June. “Smugglers are exploiting these loopholes to encourage more migration. They openly advertise a safe and legal journey to the United States, misleading families by telling them there is a policy that anyone who arrives with a child will not be deported.”
In fact, Hastings’ statement said only 1.5% of family units from Central America caught in 2017 were sent back to their home countries, despite the fact that most will not end up having valid claims to remain in the U.S. This backlogged the system and gave credibility to the smugglers’ claim that families will not be deported.
Taking Care of Illegal Aliens
To deal with the unprecedented number of migrants, especially family members, CBP stood up six temporary, steel-framed structures. The facilities in Donna, El Paso and Tornillo, Texas, and in Yuma, Arizona, are weatherproof, climate-controlled spaces that include a variety of services to accommodate the incoming migrants.
“The additional capacity of these critical structures provides much needed help during the crisis,” Border Patrol Division Chief Lloyd Easterling, who is responsible for the temporary facilities in Donna, Texas, said at the peak of the immigrant flows this summer. But he added those facilities filled up as soon as they were constructed. CBP stood up the first facility in May and doubled the holding space for family units with a second facility in June.
In addition to having a roof over their heads out of the summer heat, CBP provided hot meals and snacks, hygiene kits, medical services, transportation, sleeping mats, blankets, drinking water, diapers, wipes, baby formula and clothing sets.
“We are providing a humane solution to families, unaccompanied children and adults during this crisis. We are providing all the essential services and products,” said Rosie Zaragoza-Santos, a contracting specialist who works with the CBP office responsible for the timely buying and delivery of the supplies and services provided at each temporary structure. “We are addressing the humanitarian effort by issuing contracts that provide clean clothing, housing, food, medical care and showers for incoming migrants, while also supporting our agents at the frontline.”
Even with these improved structures, things can get tense for people in custody and those caring for them, but Stern said Border Patrol agents know how to diffuse tense situations.
“You maintain your basic humanity and treat people how you want to be treated in a situation like this, while still upholding the law," he said. "It has a welcome effect. When you show somebody you’re taking into custody that you can be respectful and decent and even friendly, in some cases, it makes your job easier and safer.”
Plus, Stern added, “Being a decent human being costs nothing.”
Addressing the Crisis
CBP responded to address the border crisis with determination to maintain a secure border and provide humanitarian care for those in custody. Stern is one of 325 Border Patrol agents and more than 700 CBP officers who were sent from their regular duty stations across the U.S. to the southwest border with Mexico. Before going to Texas, he spent a month in California, apprehending illegal aliens. Compared to his previous work apprehending border crossers, he said these migrants were much more compliant and turn themselves in. But the ratio of illegal aliens to agents is way out of proportion, especially at the holding facilities.
“You’re talking 800 versus eight or 10,” Stern said.
Now he’s working temporarily at CBP headquarters in Washington, D.C., providing valuable insight to what’s happening in the field locations.
“It’s a great opportunity to be here and provide what input I can to the decision makers,” Stern said.
CBP also sought and gained help from its partners at the Department of Defense, tapping into the military’s abilities to move large amounts of assets in a short time.
“In Operation Guardian Support, National Guard personnel are providing air support in the form of light and medium lift helicopters; infrastructure support, such as road maintenance and vegetation clearing; operational support, such as fleet maintenance and repair and law enforcement communications assistance; and surveillance support as surveillance camera operators,” Provost said in a statement submitted to a House committee in June. “Agents often work alone in rugged, remote areas. The surveillance DOD provides helps us keep the agents on the ground safe and aware of illegal activity happening along the border.”
Lawmakers approved $1.1 billion in emergency supplemental funding for CBP in late June, money that addressed humanitarian needs, border operations, and other related programs.
“The supplemental has provided much-needed resources for the care and processing of the record-breaking numbers of migrants illegally crossing our Southwest border,” Provost said, although she added that ICE also needs money to take custody of the illegal aliens and ease the demand on overwhelmed CBP resources. The Department of Health and Human Services also received nearly $3 billion, which significantly improved their ability to take custody of unaccompanied children.
DHS also implemented new Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), whereby certain foreign individuals entering or seeking admission to the U.S. from Mexico – illegally or without proper documentation – may be returned to Mexico and wait outside of the U.S. for the duration of their immigration proceedings. The initiative effectively ended “catch and release.” As a result of MPP and stepped up enforcement efforts in Mexico, border apprehensions and inadmissible cases along the Southwest border declined dramatically for the last four months of the fiscal year.
New temporary holding facilities designed for families and children, additional CBP officers and Border Patrol agents deployed to the border, military support, money from Congress, and new agreements struck with Mexico and Central American countries to curb illegal immigration from flowing north all aligned to address the crisis. Numbers dropped from the high of nearly 145,000 apprehensions and those deemed inadmissible in May, to a four-month low of 52,000 by the last month of the fiscal year.
Although pleased with the results, Acting Commissioner Morgan remained guarded in his assessment of the border crisis.
“The daily [enforcement actions] in May were almost 6,000,” he said during the Oct. 29 news conference. “Today, it’s gone drastically down, but it’s still 1,400 apprehensions per day. That’s still at crisis levels. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Border Patrol agents, such as Stern, say they will continue to focus on the mission.
“You go where you’re needed,” Stern said, noting that he has spent the better part of the year far from his home in Maine and, like many of his Border Patrol colleagues, faces a daunting task. “We continue to meet the challenge, and we’re working to take care of the migrants humanely while securing our border.”