EL PASO — The nation’s top border official warned that the U.S. immigration enforcement system along the nation’s southern boundary is at “the breaking point” and said Wednesday that authorities are having to release migrants into the country after cursory background checks because of a crush of asylum-seeking families with children.
Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said that for the first time in more than a decade, his agency is “reluctantly” performing direct releases of migrants, meaning they are not turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they are not detained, and they are allowed to leave with just a notice to appear in court at a later date.
He said that this is a “negative outcome” but that it is “the only current option we have” because of overcrowding at detention facilities as Central Americans stream to the border knowing they will be able to gain entry with asylum claims.
The number of migrant families coming to the border has reached new highs month after month, a trend that dramatically accelerated after President Donald Trump announced parents and children would no longer be separated, reversing course on his “zero tolerance” crackdown.
McAleenan said the agency detained more than 4,100 migrants Tuesday, the highest one-day total at the border in more than a decade, and agency projections have border apprehensions on pace to exceed 100,000 this month — an increase of more than 30 percent. By comparison, at the height of the last border crisis, in May 2014, agents apprehended more than 68,800 migrants that month.
The massive influx of families seeking asylum has strained almost every aspect of U.S. operations on the border, McAleenan said, nowhere more evident than here, along the Rio Grande. Crossings have been overwhelmed with hundreds of migrants seeking asylum daily; Border Patrol stations are crammed and have no space for detainees; the immigration court system is backed up with hundreds of thousands of cases; and health services are having to triage batches of patients who have a variety of ailments and communicable diseases.
“That breaking point has arrived this week,” McAleenan said, standing in front of a border fence. “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.”
McAleenan made an urgent call for Congress to provide additional emergency funding to house and provide medical care to migrants. But he also urged lawmakers to close legal “vulnerabilities” that make it nearly impossible to detain migrant families and unaccompanied minors long enough to determine whether they have a valid asylum claim. He urged Congress to expand detention space, allow for the detention of families for up to eight weeks instead of the current three weeks, and allow U.S. agencies to swiftly deport Central American families and unaccompanied minors who lose their immigration cases.
“If they don’t have a valid claim, we’ll repatriate,” McAleenan said. “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.”
Customs and Border Protection officials say they are particularly alarmed by the soaring number of unaccompanied juveniles in crowded detention cells because Health and Human Services can’t place them in shelters fast enough. Officials said they have 1,350 underage migrants in holding cells without a parent — and 20 percent are 12 years old or younger.
McAleenan said the overwhelming numbers and “inadequate capacity to detain families and children at ICE and HHS” is at the heart of the crisis.
By law, the minors should remain in Customs and Border Protection custody for the shortest amount of time as possible and not in excess of 72 hours. But agency officials privately acknowledged Wednesday that they are keeping them in custody longer, in potential violation of a court order, because Health and Human Services doesn’t have anywhere to put them, a situation leaving Customs and Border Protection with “no legal options.”
The agency is reassigning agents to respond to and care for children, including U.S. agents who were sent south from the Canadian border this week.
But Evelyn Stauffer, an Health and Human Services spokeswoman, said the agency “continues to receive children referred to our care from the Department of Homeland Security and place them in an appropriate shelter as safely and quickly as possible.” She said the agency could expand emergency facilities to handle an influx, as they also did under the Obama administration. There are 12,000 minors currently in Health and Human Services custody.
Near where McAleenan spoke Wednesday, an improvised holding pen beneath a highway overpass is serving as a processing center. U.S. agents have been interviewing hundreds of parents and children in a dusty parking lot. Just before the commissioner began speaking, a group of nine parents and children from El Salvador and Panama traversed the Rio Grande, and agents led them to the processing center on foot.
McAleenan’s plea for help reflects the growing desperation among Homeland Security officials faced with a border influx that is on pace to be the largest in more than a decade, led by Guatemalan and Honduran asylum seekers who arrive with children and surrender to U.S. agents. McAleenan said his agency currently has more than 13,000 migrants in its custody.
“A high number is 4,000,” he said. “Six-thousand is crisis level. Thirteen-thousand is unprecedented.”
The amount of resources needed to handle the surge is diverting Border Patrol agents from other duties, including security work aimed at drug interdiction and interior checkpoints. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor of policy and government at George Mason University who researches migration, smuggling and criminal organizations, said it is risky to divert Border Patrol agents from their main security mission.
“They’re supposed to look for real threats, to look for drug traffickers,” she said. “Children and women are not a threat to the United States of America.”
While McAleenan was emphasizing the need for more resources and legal authority to keep people from the U.S. interior, advocacy groups say the Trump administration should instead treat the migrants as refugees and invest in foreign aid. Migrants are streaming out of Central America for a complex set of reasons — including drought, poverty, violence and political instability — problems that will persist regardless of U.S. border policy.
“They don’t need new money. They need a new strategy,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group. “They think that if we’re just tough enough, people will stop coming. That completely misreads what’s happening.”
McAleenan’s appeal came amid heated debate in Congress over the border situation. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in February after a government shutdown failed to secure the funding he wanted for construction of a border wall. Congress sent Trump a bipartisan resolution that sought to nullify his declaration, but Trump vetoed it. On Tuesday, a House vote seeking to override the veto failed.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, called it a “sham emergency” on Tuesday.
“The Trump administration has withheld the money Congress appropriated to improve conditions in the Northern Triangle countries, wasted funds on an ineffective wall and refused to work with Congress on a comprehensive solution,” Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, said in a statement. “Every action this administration has taken over the past two years has increased the numbers of families, women and children coming to the border.”