EL PASO — Saying that his agency has reached a "breaking point" in the face of a surge of undocumented immigrants, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan called on Congress for help and said he's reassigning 750 federal agents stationed at some of the country’s busiest international bridges and trade zones to help overwhelmed U.S. Border Patrol agents.
During a news conference near the Rio Grande, McAleenan said the Border Patrol is on pace to apprehend about 100,000 migrants this month alone along the southwest border — most of them families and unaccompanied children from Central America. The El Paso sector has seen a particularly large surge in undocumented immigrants, he said, and across the southwest border the agency now has more than 13,400 migrants in custody, including nearly 3,500 in El Paso.
“A crisis level is 6,000; 13,000 is unprecedented," he said.
McAleenan told Congress in testimony earlier this month that the border was reaching a breaking point, and on Wednesday he said, “That breaking point has arrived this week at our border. And nowhere has that crisis manifested more acutely than here in El Paso.”
He said CBP agents who are normally tasked with processing legitimate trade and travel while detecting contraband will be reassigned from ports of entry in El Paso, Laredo, Tucson and San Diego. Laredo and El Paso have ranked as the country’s top two inland ports for years; about $229 billion and $77.4 billion in two-way trade passed through those respective customs districts in 2018.
“There will be impacts to 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” at ports of entry, he said. “But this is required to help us manage this operational crisis.”
McAleenan also said the vast majority of the apprehended migrants will be released instead of being transferred to and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That agency’s holding facilities are at capacity, and McAleenan said he is left with no choice but to let the migrants go with orders to appear before an immigration judge. Border Patrol agents will now be tasked with deciding whether a person should be released, he said.
“That is not something we want to do; it’s something we have to do given the overcrowding in our facilities,” he said, calling it “an unfortunate step” that hurts morale in the agency.
Shortly after McAleenan's press conference, the Border Patrol's Del Rio sector announced that it has begun releasing migrants on their own recognizance because it "has experienced a significant rise in the number of family units arrested throughout the sector."
As many as 40 percent of the El Paso sector's agents have been asked to help with transportation, processing or providing medical care to the migrants, which McAleenan said makes the border more vulnerable because those agents aren't patrolling.
McAleenan said the crisis is a result of increasing migration from Central America — he said poverty is driving most of the migrants north — and U.S. laws that prevent families and unaccompanied minors from being detained for prolonged periods of time after turning themselves in to Border Patrol. He called on Congress to change the laws in order to help end the crisis and give asylum seekers with legitimate claims their day in court.
He said the agency needs the ability to detain families together for four to eight weeks, enough time for a judge to evaluate their asylum claims and decide whether to deport them or let them stay in the U.S. “They live with uncertainty for years at a time because the system is broken and overwhelmed," he said.
“Our courts tell us that 10-15 percent of Central American migrants have a legitimate asylum claim at the end of the process,” he said. “Those people won’t even see a judge now for two to five years or more to have that asylum claim adjudicated.”
The reassignment of CBP agents marks the second shift in personnel away from their primary duties in less than a week. Over the weekend, the Border Patrol shut down its roadside checkpoints within the El Paso sector so that agents assigned to those posts could instead help process migrants. It’s unclear how long either reassignment will last.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of undocumented immigrants held in the Border Patrol's El Paso sector. The correct number is about 3,500.