Border Patrol vehicles wait along the fence between El Paso and Juarez. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
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.