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El Paso Press Conference Transcript

Release Date: 
March 27, 2019

Event: Press Conference
Date: Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Time: 9:45 a.m. GMT
Location: On the border, near the intersection of Calleros and Chihuahua roads in El Paso, Texas


AC Meehan:

Thank you everyone for joining today. My name is Andrew Meehan. I'm the Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs. Per the media advisory, today's press conference is on the dramatic increase in illegal crossings that continue to occur along the Southwest border.

The Commissioner will open up with a statement and take a few questions.

If you have any additional follow up or need any specifics, my team is happy to work with you and get you whatever information you need. With that, I’m going to open up to Kevin K. McAleenan, U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Commissioner McAleenan:

Good morning. Thank you for being here for an update on what we're seeing here at the 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 our border.

CBP is facing an unprecedented humanitarian and border security crisis all along our Southwest border. And nowhere has that crisis manifested more acutely than here in El Paso. 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. 13,000 is unprecedented.

On Monday, we saw the highest total of apprehensions and encounters in over a decade, with 4,000 migrants either apprehended or encountered at Ports of Entry in a single day. That was Monday. Yesterday, we broke the record again with 4,117. We are now on pace for over 100 thousand apprehensions and encounters with migrants in March, with 90 percent of those, 90 thousand people, crossing the border illegally between Ports of Entry. March will be the highest month since 2008. The arriving flows are made up primarily of Central American families and unaccompanied children.

These groups cannot be repatriated expeditiously, and instead, are almost guaranteed to be released to remain in the US indefinitely, regardless of the merits of their immigration or asylum claim. The last time we had crossings near this level, they were almost all single adults from Mexico who can be swiftly repatriated. It's a big difference.

To put this in more recent context, in March, we will see over 55,000 family units alone. In March of 2017, when we were at historic lows, we saw 16,794 crossings total, including all demographics: adults, families, and children.

This stark and increasing shift to more vulnerable populations combined with overwhelming numbers inadequate capacity to detain families and children at ICE and HHS respectively is creating a humanitarian crisis. In March, almost 40,000 children will come into CBP custody after completing a harrowing journey in the hands of violent and callous smugglers through Mexico.

The danger of violent assault on that journey, the potential for a tragic incident in the crossing or in overwhelmed CBP facilities, or in transportation networks, is clear and present. It’s going to be 85 degrees in El Paso today, and the danger increases for all those crossing our border unlawfully, as it gets hotter.

Here in El Paso, we have almost 3,500 migrants in custody this morning in facilities designed for much fewer. We had over 1,000 apprehension in this one sector alone on Monday in encounters at our Port of Entry. The vast majority, again, families from Central America. And all of this coming into facilities designed for short-term holds of single adults.

This humanitarian mission which we are committed to is undermining our border security efforts. While 65 percent of crossings are now families and children who most often present to Border Patrol agents - you saw a group walking peacefully to our station just a few minutes ago - 35 percent are still single adults who try to evade apprehension at our border, and within that flow are thousands of criminals, smugglers, gang members, and public safety threats that we are sworn to protect this country from. With up to 40 percent of our personnel in key sectors like in El Paso, working to care for, transport, provide medical and hospital watch for families and children…that means our security posture at the border is negatively impacted.

The same criminal organizations that are smuggling migrants, profiting from them, abusing them on the journey, are benefiting from our reduced security presence. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bring adults trying to evade capture behind those families as we’re bogged down with large groups.

With regard to medical efforts, CBP has established an unprecedented new policy for doing medical screening of all children 17 and under in our custody. We are now taking up to 60 migrants a day to the hospital, including the medical facilities here in the greater El Paso region, which have done an amazing job tory to care for very sick individuals trying to cross our borders. 

We have dedicated over 100,000 hours of border agent and officer time on medical transport and watch. Those are agents that are not on the border protecting communities, but are involved in the medical care of individual migrants. To give you a sense of what that looks like, when I walked through Paso Del Norte Station yesterday, we had a quarantine cells for people with the flu, people with chicken pox, people with lice, a tremendous number of different conditions that we are trying to manage every day.

In the last four days, we’ve seen fevers of 105 degrees in infants, a two-year old suffering from seizures in the desert, a 19-year old woman with a congenital heart defect that needs emergency surgery, and a 40-year old man suffering from multi-organ failure but trying to refuse medical care.

Our expanded medical efforts are saving lives, but they come at a high cost to our enforcement mission.

Why is all this occurring? 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.

This is due to court orders that undermine the integrity of our immigration system. There’s no question why this is happening. For unaccompanied children, the continued driver is also the certainty that they will be allowed to stay due to the disparate treatment of children arriving from Mexico who can be repatriated and those arriving from Central America and other non-contiguous countries who can’t.

The only way to fundamentally address these flows is for Congress to act and to reinstate integrity into our immigration system. In the meantime, we need assistance and additional resources to manage the flow so that our partners at ICE, which is responsible for detention and removal of single adults and family units, can keep pace with our increasing flows. And HHS, which is responsible for caring for unaccompanied children, can provide placements and accept transfers from the border timely. In the absence of immediate Congressional action, which we are asking for and calling for again today on behalf of our agents, on behalf of the migrants who are vulnerable in our custody, to address this broken framework, we’re going to be taking every action in our power to try to manage this crisis.  

We are applying the additional funding we received in the FY19 budget for humanitarian purposes, extending our medical contracts to key sectors including here in El Paso so that we may care for more migrants more expeditiously as they arrive. We’re augmenting our law enforcement assets with contract support for migrant care and food services. We’re enhancing our transportation contracts and establishing new processing facilities, including a planned center here in the El Paso area.

We’re redirecting 750 officers from key roles at our Ports of Entry. El Paso knows what those six bridges mean in that daily commerce with Mexico. We need those officers now though, to help Border Patrol agents care for migrants. CBP officers will be helping with processing, transportation, and hospital watch. There will be impacts to traffic at the border. There will be a slowdown in the processing of trade, there will be wait time increases in our pedestrian and passenger vehicle lanes. We know that we have Ana Santa holy week approaching, but this is required to help us manage this operational crisis.

We’re calling up our mission support personnel, those who have volunteered to provide humanitarian assistance, in a natural disaster for instance, from across CBP. Human resource specialists, IT professionals to come down and help our Border Patrol Agents manage this crisis.

We’re engaging non-governmental organizations and the faith based community. Nowhere is that partnership clearer than here in El Paso with the El Paso city and emergency management team, with the Annunciation House and Ruben Garcia, to try to care for families and migrants when they are being released form our custody.

We’re going to need to continue to partner with the Public Health Service Commission Corps to provide medical care in locations across the border. I saw some of those dedicated uniformed doctors yesterday alongside our agents caring for migrants. And we are going to be taking steps to support safety in our facilities that are contrary to our enforcement objectives and our mission and culture.

For the first time in over a decade, CBP is performing direct releases of migrants when ICE is unable to provide bed space to relieve overcrowding. We're going to be doing this on a risk basis.

This is in a limited capacity. It's very reluctantly, and it represents a negative outcome for enforcement. It represents an increase in flows that will follow. And it impacts the moral of our team, but is the only current option we have from a life and safety perspective to try to reduce the overcrowding in our facilities.

We are still setting court dates. These people will still eventually see an immigration judge, but this is an unfortunate step and it is very challenging for our law enforcement professionals to digest when they have sworn to protect the borders, when they know that the vast majority of those that they encounter will not be granted relief by an immigration judge and they will not be granted permission to stay in the US.

Even with all these steps, with the flows at these levels and increasing, combined with the lack of bed space from our partners, it means we will be continued to be challenged to provide humane care for those in our custody.

With 55,000 families, including 40,000 children expected to enter the process this month, we are doing everything we can to simply avoid a tragedy in a CBP facility. But with these numbers, with the types of illnesses we're seeing in the border, I fear that it's just a matter of time.

With continued inaction by Congress – it’s going to continue to put people at risk. The vulnerable migrants on the journey, in Mexico, as they cross our border in increasingly hot weather and our own personnel and unfortunately children in our custody. We’re going to continue to do everything we can to manage this crisis. The men and women have CBP are serving with honor despite stark challenges – but we need Congress to act.

In the meantime, we will continue to rely on our partnerships in communities like El Paso. We're going to ask Mexico to do more. And we can continue to do our level best to take care of vulnerable people in our custody.

Thank you. With that, I'll take some of your questions.

[Inaudible question]

Commissioner McAleenan:

The question is whether the 750 CBP officers that are going to be aiding our border patrol professionals with the humanitarian mission are going to be coming from just El Paso Field Office or more broadly across the border.

That's more broadly across the border, Bob. Every field office, all four, Laredo, El Paso, Tucson, and San Diego will all be providing CBP officers to support our border patrol in this mission. Thank you.

[Inaudible question]

Commissioner McAleenan:

So that's a very good question. The question is, how long do we expect our CBP officers to be reassigned to supporting the humanitarian mission alongside their Border Patrol partners?

We don't know. Right now, it's an immediate response to a crisis that’s overwhelming our capacity. As I mentioned, we have in some sectors, an average of 40% of our Border Patrol agents all fully engaged in just the care, transport, and processing of migrants. Those agents are not on the line. They're not able to provide their border security functions. We need to balance that out. We need to get them help, not only from our CBP officers, but from mission support professionals and contracts and ideally, by interagency partners to increase our capacity.

[Inaudible question]

Commissioner McAleenan:

So we're asking for help from interagency partners across the federal government. This includes the National Guard, it includes the Department of Defense. They're already working alongside us to assist with our border security mission, to provide capacity for emergencies, to include security at the Ports of Entry, as well as medical care. That partnership is going to continue. And we're looking at ways that DoD can even help us more in looking at additional resources that they can bring to bear here at the border.

In terms of partnering with NGOs and the faith-based community - that's a critical aspect of caring for migrants after their release from Department Homeland Security custody. We are not asking for civil society groups to provide border security assistance.

We work very closely with citizens who see issues in their neighborhoods or in their areas, and we respond to that. But we do not need citizen groups to help patrol the border. Thank you.

[Inaudible question]

Commissioner McAleenan:

Right - so the question is about the direct release of migrants. This means that instead of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officer, that's the entity assigned for detention removal of migrants after their interdicted, apprehended, or encountered by CBP, [instead of that officer] deciding whether that individual can be accepted into custody more or needs to be released pending a court hearing, usually on some sort of alternatives in detention, like an ankle bracelet - that decision will now be made by a Border Patrol Agent and the release will happen more expeditiously and directly. That is not something we want to do, it is something we have to do given the overcrowding in our facilities.

So we're still going to try to coordinate with communities, certainly here in El Paso where we have a tremendous relationship. I met with the Mayor yesterday on some of these issues, but also with NGOs to let them know about these additional releases today. And of course, in the transportation hubs like the bus stations here in El Paso and elsewhere along the border, where we're hoping that they're going to be able to accommodate increasing flow.

[Inaudible question]

Commissioner McAleenan:

Yes…we're absolutely looking at the right way to protect migrants from the elements while they're in our custody and to move them expeditiously through our process. And that could involve a combination of some soft sided of facilities. What we're trying to do here in El Paso is acquire a more permanent central processing facility that will allow us to coordinate our resources to provide the appropriate contracts afford in medical care in one hub, and then allow us to do transportation from that. But yeah, we're looking at immediate term, midterm sort of modular facilities, and then long-term, more permanent structures that we can have full services. And we've gotten some significant support from Congress with that funding, but we're going to need more.

[Inaudible question]

Commissioner McAleenan:

Nick, I think the surge numbers are just overwhelming the entire system. We've been, we've been concerned about this. We've been predicting this for some time. CBP is the largest agency in the immigration cycle. 45,000 uniform professionals, 60,000 total. ICE-ERO is only about 6,000 people.

So that funnel goes from a large border agency to a very small detention/removal very quickly. For HHS, it's a grant based system where they need to find private sector providers for care of children. And that's a very difficult system to administer. So we think we need substantial investments in the entire system to keep pace with these kind of flows.

[Inaudible question]

Commissioner McAleenan:

The question is, is it legislative relief or emergency funding? I want to answer this one.

Legislative relief, changes in the law and closing the vulnerabilities in our legal framework is the only way that this flow is going to be reduced and we're going to be able to restore integrity to our immigration system.

Right now, we are not able to even reach the claims of legitimate asylum seekers. Our courts tell us that 10 to 15 percent of Central American migrants have a legitimate asylum claim at the end of the process. Those people won't even see a judge now for two to five years or more to have that asylum claim adjudicated because this economic migration, which is primarily a fleeing of poverty, fleeing difficult conditions, food insecurity, especially in the western highlands of Guatemala and in the rural areas of Honduras, is overwhelming that legitimate asylum population. That's a broken system.

For unaccompanied children, we have government partners in the northern triangle, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, who are ready to take children back and handle that humanely. Those are their citizens they believe they have the responsibility for. We're not allowed to do that under the law, under The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. We need changes to those two situations.

We need to be able to detain families together for a short period of time, four to eight weeks, to go through an immigration court proceeding. If they don't have a valid claim, we'll repatriate. If they do, they'll be released with the certainty that they have asylum with the ability to plan, to invest in a business, to make these choices for schools. Right now, they don't have that. They live with uncertainty for years at a time because the system is broken and overwhelmed.

Those are the two legislative changes we need urgently that would make an immediate impact, just like it did in 2014 during the first surge of families and kids. When DHS started repatriating families that didn't have a valid claim, the numbers went down immediately. We don't have the ability to do that due to court decisions that have come subsequently. We need Congress to fix that.

Secondly, we absolutely can't wait. We have migrants in our custody that are in challenging conditions. We need to provide a better facility and a better process for them urgently. And that requires interagency partnership and resources. Thank you for that question.

AC Meehan:

Thank you, everybody. With that, we will be happy to follow up with any questions that you have. Please work with myself and our team at OPA. Thank you.

Last modified: 
March 27, 2019