DHS acting secretary addresses humanitarian efforts for asylum-seekers

DHS acting secretary Kevin A. McAleean speaks to press along a portion of the border wall Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in Hidalgo. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

HIDALGO — Amid changes in leadership at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the newly selected acting secretary made the rounds in the Rio Grande Valley Tuesday and Wednesday to assess the situation as asylum-seekers from Central America continue to surrender at the border.

Fresh from a midnight shift observing U.S. Border Patrol agents working in the RGV sector, Kevin McAleenan, the acting DHS secretary, addressed the media at the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge Wednesday afternoon.

McAleenan, the now-former U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner recently tasked by President Trump to head DHS after Kristjen Nielsen’s ouster, made remarks related to the seemingly endless arrival of asylum-seekers, and the toll it’s taking on the immigration system.

He said the solution and the responsibility to de-incentivize people from crossing the border fall squarely with lawmakers, and that laws need to change to address the problem. These are the same talking points stressed by the man who lost his job just two weeks ago — Ronald D. Vitiello, who was pushed out by Trump because he wasn’t “tough enough.”

Vitiello said during that conference that congress needed to change the laws to allow families to remain in detention while their immigration cases are pending. Specifically, Vitiello wanted changes to the trafficking victims laws, a change to the Flores settlement agreement and the credible fear process for asylum-seekers.

Prior to his remarks, the acting DHS secretary met with local mayors in the Valley, law enforcement and Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which operates the respite center in McAllen. McAleenan addressed the ongoing humanitarian and security “emergency” along the border.

“It’s clear that all of our resources are being stretched thin, the system is full, and we are beyond capacity,” McAleenan said. “That means the new waves of vulnerable populations are adding additional pressure to the urgent humanitarian and security crisis here. We don’t have room to hold them, we don’t have the authority to remove them, and they’re not likely to be allowed to remain in the country at the end of their immigration proceedings.”

Prior to the tour of the respite center, which on Wednesday held 400 people, mostly families and children, McAleenan met privately with Pimentel and Bishop Daniel E. Flores of the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville.

Pimentel said McAleenan, who toured the center for a little under an hour, expressed a desire to work with Catholic Charities to provide solutions for the many families arriving at the center.

Asked for details about what McAleenan proposed, Pimentel said nothing specific was discussed other than a willingness to include and listen to feedback from Catholic Charities with regard to what is proposed.

“At this point I don’t know if we have any solutions that he proposed,” she said. “He said he was going to work with us to make sure that the solutions that do come forward, that he would listen to what we had to say about it. He appears to be sincere, and a good man, a man who is interested in searching for solutions, and in working with us. He said we will work together to find answers to these issues.”

She said currently, about 200 to 400 people are arriving daily at the respite center after their release from CBP custody.

“(McAleenan) was very cooperative, he’s very supportive and very willing to work with us to make sure that the solutions that will work are responsive to the respect of the families, which is my concern,” Pimentel said.

McAleenan was in the Valley to address the agency’s continued efforts in what is being characterized as a “crisis” on the U.S.-Mexico border, as thousands of asylum-seekers arrive at the border and surrender to agents in large groups, straining CBP resources at facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Flanked at the news conference by now-acting CBP Commissioner John P. Sanders, RGV Border Patrol Sector Chief Rodolfo Karisch and others, McAleenan emphasized during his brief time before the media in Hidalgo that the change must come through Congress.

“We’re imploring Congress to provide not only the resources that we need to enhance our humanitarian and border security efforts, but most importantly to work with us on targeted solutions for the causes, to restore integrity to our immigration system, and remove the incentives for families and children to cross our border illegally,” he said.

Since about the beginning of the year and through March, Border Patrol and CBP officials were noting that the increase of families and unaccompanied children surrendering to them at the border was inundating their immigration system, and leaving them overcapacity at processing and detention stations.

 As of early April, the ICE facility at Karnes which holds more than 800 people had roughly 60 people being housed. The South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, which has a maximum occupancy of more than 1,400, had about 1,000 people being housed. And the ICE-run facility in Berks County Pennsylvania, which is currently housing about 20 persons, has a maximum capacity of more than 2,400 people, according to ICE officials.

Last week, CBP reported that Border Patrol agents had apprehended 92,607 people along the southwest border in March — more than 60 percent of those being composed of families and unaccompanied children who are arriving at the border and surrendering to agents.

CBP reported of the more than 92,000 total apprehensions on the southwest border, 53,077 were of families and another 8,975 made up of unaccompanied minor children — the majority of whom are coming from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

McAleenan said the combined agencies’ focus is on care for the families and children arriving — this despite national outcry over recent deaths of migrants who were in the custody of Border Patrol.

“This humanitarian situation on our border cannot be ignored, this is about the safety of children, and that’s our first and foremost responsibility,” McAleenan said.

CBP confirmed the death of a 40-year-old Mexican national at an El Paso hospital on March 18, which was days after he was apprehended attempting to re-enter the country illegally, a CBP news release stated.

It was the fourth death of a migrant in CBP custody since December, which includes an 8-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl.

On Feb. 18, a 45-year-old Mexican national died at a McAllen hospital two weeks after he was apprehended near Roma.

To address the deaths and the overall issues facing their agencies, McAleenan said DHS is working to expand medical care, build temporary facilities, improve transportation and using resources across the federal government.

Through March fiscal year 2018, Border Patrol agents apprehended 39,975 family units — compared to the 189,584 family unit apprehensions year to date in fiscal year 2019 — an increase of more than 370%, according to the agency’s website.

Through March of this year, Border Patrol agents apprehended a total of 35,898 unaccompanied minor children — an increase of more than 14,000 apprehensions, a more than 65% increase year over year.

CBP said they’ve also seen an increase in large groups of 100 or more people surrendering at once, with more than 100 instances recorded this year so far, an increase from the 13 large groups encountered last fiscal year, and the two groups of 100 or more people in fiscal year 2017, the website stated.

Just this week, Border Patrol officials said two large groups of 170 and 179 undocumented immigrants surrendered to agents in Roma and Los Ebanos respectively on Tuesday and Wednesday. The groups, made up of mostly family units and unaccompanied children, had crossed the Rio Grande and surrendered to agents, according to a news release.

This increase in family units and unaccompanied children has affected wait times at ports of entry across the U.S.-Mexico border as the busy holiday weekend approaches.

The long wait times at the ports of entry prompted now-former DHS secretary Nielsen in late March to reassign 750 CBP officers to detention facilities to help with processing the groups, 300 of whom were assigned to the Rio Grande Valley sector.

This week, CBP officials confirmed it would once again erect temporary shelters in Donna by the end of April, in an effort to accomodate and alleviate the overflow at its facilities, something CBP did in 2014 and 2015 when a surge of unaccompanied minor children led to overcapped facilities.

“U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) urgently needs to provide for additional shelter capacity to accommodate individuals in CBP’s custody throughout the southwest border,” the release from CBP stated. “The overwhelming number of individuals arriving daily to the U.S. has created an immediate need for additional processing and detention space in El Paso, Texas and Donna, Texas.

“CBP is committed to finding solutions that address the current border security and humanitarian crisis at the southwest border in a way that safeguards those in our custody in a humane and dignified manner.”

The shelters, which CBP calls “soft-sided” facilities, can hold up to 500 people, and will be temporary, according to CBP officials.

Trump has repeatedly stated that the country cannot take any more people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border — even going so far as to advise Border Patrol agents should tell asylum-seekers that the country is full, and to “go back.”

In recent days, the president has mused about releasing migrants into sanctuary cities, an idea that has shown support among those who make up his base, and decried by many who advocate for immigrant rights.

On Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, announced they had sent a letter members of the House Appropriations Committee to request federal funds for RGV communities to deal with the influx of migrants arriving.

The language included would make local governments, non-profits, and other entities in the Valley eligible to apply for reimbursements in the form of a grant for the housing and care of families released into the community, the release stated.

“Efforts to deal with people entering the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley continue to strain local resources,” Gonzalez said. “At the request of our constituents and local leaders, Congressman Vela and I have come together to ensure that local governments remain financially stable as they continue to direct their own resources to provide basic necessities for those entering this country.”

Vela said local governments and NGOs have provided the brunt of the services to families released by DHS officials.

“In order to provide funding relief to our local governments, I have proposed language in the Fiscal Year 2020 Homeland Security appropriations bill that allows governments to be reimbursed for providing these services. Congressman Gonzalez and I will continue to fight for inclusion of this language in any upcoming funding package,” Vela said in the release.

Despite the increase in families and unaccompanied children surrendering to agents at the border, total apprehensions remain at historic lows, with 396,579 apprehensions reported in fiscal year 2018, according to the agency’s website.

The 396,579 number of apprehensions is still nowhere near the apprehensions reported 20 years ago, when Border Patrol officials recorded 1,579,010 apprehensions in fiscal year 1999 — the next closest year in terms of apprehensions came more than 10 years ago, in fiscal year 2007 when Border Patrol agents apprehended a total of 876,704 immigrants, the agency’s website stated.