EL PASO, Texas – Outside a Border Patrol station overflowing with Central American families, the top U.S. border security official made an urgent appeal to lawmakers Wednesday for more resources and authorities, warning of an unprecedented migration surge that has pushed his agency to “the breaking point.”
Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, gathered reporters beneath an overpass where U.S. agents have been processing hundreds of parents and children in a dusty parking lot. He said he has warned Congress of the unfolding chaos and called for immediate action to “address this broken framework.”
“That breaking point has arrived this week at our border,” he said. “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.”
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 statements reflect 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 12,000 migrants in its custody.
“A high number is 4,000,” he said. “Six thousand is crisis level. Twelve thousand is unprecedented.”
McAleenan said holding stations are so dangerously overcrowded that CBP is releasing migrants directly into the United States for the first time in more than a decade.
Some have been seriously ill, including infants with 105-degree fevers, a 2-year-old suffering seizures in the desert, a 19-year-old woman with a congenital heart defect who needs emergency surgery and a 40-year-old man suffering multiorgan failure. Others have lice, the flu, and chickenpox.
“We are doing everything we can to simply avoid a tragedy in a CBP facility,” McAleenan said. “But with these numbers, with the types of illnesses we're seeing at the border, I fear that it's just a matter of time.”
He blamed the surge on smugglers and U.S. laws that he said encourage illegal migration because migrants are virtually guaranteed to be released in the United States.
Thousands more Central Americans are waiting in Mexico, at shelters in Ciudad Juarez, and U.S. officials believe they likely will cross the river in coming days and weeks.
Though apprehensions remain below their annual peak of 1.6 million in 2000, the nature of the increasing migration flows has shifted dramatically, and that shift is driving the alarm. In prior eras, most of the migrants were adult men who could be easily deported to Mexico; now, many of those attempting to cross the border are asylum-seeking Central American families and, to a lesser degree, minors traveling on their own. Because those seeking asylum have a legal right to have their cases evaluated, most families are released into the U.S. to await hearings in clogged immigration courts, a process that can take months or years.
President Donald Trump has cited the immigration surge to bolster his push for a border wall. The migrants are crossing the Rio Grande, arriving in places where the United States already has formidable, modern border barriers. By surrendering to agents on U.S. soil – the strip of land between the river and the tall U.S. fencing – the migrants can assert their legal right to seek asylum.
Border Patrol holding cells in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas also are overcrowded, as are facilities in Arizona, where large groups of Guatemalan families have been arriving at remote desert areas to surrender, Border Patrol officials said.