HIDALGO — Less than a week after taking office, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stood in the shadow of the levee wall here and applied a semblance of finesse to the Trump administration’s tough immigration rhetoric.
Years of immigration policy failures are now rooted in the United States, which “make it almost impossible to carry out the law,” Nielsen said as her words echoed off the bollard levee wall behind her. The immigration court backlog continues to pile up, which Nielsen wants to diminish. And working with landowners to make way for the border wall can be complicated, Nielsen said.
Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection numbers show apprehensions were down this year, which Nielsen acknowledged after her tour of the border in the Rio Grande Valley on Wednesday. It was her second visit here this year, the first coming two weeks after President Donald Trump was sworn into office when she toured the region with DHS’ then-Secretary John Kelly, who is now Trump’s chief of staff.
Wednesday’s visit featured a stop at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, where the border wall will begin, Border Patrol Sector Chief Manuel Padilla said Wednesday. Nielsen also met with agents, as well as local law enforcement at the Border Patrol station in McAllen.
Border Patrol agents have apprehended fewer undocumented immigrants this year. There was a 30-percent decrease this year, CBP numbers show. Despite the lower numbers, Nielsen continues to press for more border security.
“The administration’s initial FY 2018 budget request provides $1.6 billion for a new border wall system and new levee wall, here, right here, in the Rio Grande Valley sector,” Nielsen said. “But as the president has said, this is just a down payment. We want and need more to secure our border.”
With Trump pushing his immigration policy following Monday’s attempted terror attack in New York, Nielsen dug into details of the current system. Immigration courts are backlogged with more than 600,000 cases, she said, and “an explosion in asylum claims, many with dubious allegations,” as well as “lax standards in asylum claims for many years have led to a backlog of 270,000 affirmative asylum cases, and an additional 250,000 cases in immigration courts.”
Each case takes, on average, 682 days to complete, Nielsen added, which is insufficient. But Trump is taking action, she said, first by securing the border. Then, “we are asking Congress to close the loopholes that minors and illegal alien relatives exploit, which result in overwhelming our detention facilities and bloat our immigration backlog.”
DHS intends to hire 1,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys, Nielsen said. Her department also supports the Department of Justice’s plan to hire 370 additional immigration judges. DHS is also looking to hire 10,000 additional ICE officers, she said, in part to help with the nearly 1 million undocumented immigrants “who have been ordered by a federal judge to be removed from the country.”
From the start of the Trump Administration on Jan. 20 through the end of the fiscal year, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations made 110,568 arrests, compared to 77,806 in FY 2016, an increase of 40 percent.
Nielsen was forceful in the pursuit of building a border wall, but is aware of its challenges, such as people who own land on the border.
“We have quite a few issues there,” she said. “But we’re looking at a variety of ways to partner with the landowners, with the state and local authorities. In some cases it’s waivers, in some cases it’s other authorities the federal government has, but again, the wall is all user- and requirement-driven, so where we need a wall, we’ll have a wall.”
Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Republicans, have been in favor of having a wall in some areas, but not all. Border security is not a “one-size-fits-all proposition,” Cornyn has said.
But with DHS now having a full-time boss, and one with a mission to carry out her boss’s campaign promise, she hopes to ignite the wall process. When the construction will begin, however, remains unclear.
“I wish I had a crystal ball and could answer that,” Nielsen said. “We hope soon, we hope soon.”