U. S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan discusses border issues with Politico Editorial Director Luiza Savage at the Politico Pro Summit in Washington on July 17, 2018. (Jerry Glaser/CBP)

McAleenan: Border Crisis Calls for ‘a Way to Align and Work Together with Mexico’

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said Tuesday that a “safe third country” agreement with the nation’s southern neighbor, under which migrants passing through would be legally required to first request asylum in Mexico, could be one to help control a border “crisis” that has seen more families fleeing their homes in Central America and coming north.

“I think we need to find a way to align and work together with Mexico,” McAleenan said at the 2018 POLITICO Pro Summit in Washington, as well as address root causes of migration by taking on the “critical” imperative of investing in Central America.

In the early 2000s, there were more than 100,000 border apprehensions per month, on average. Last month, there were 34,114 border arrests, according to CBP, an 18 percent drop from May.

Asked if lower crossing numbers constituted a “crisis,” McAleenan replied, “I’ve heard experts, people I respect, leaders in the field who worked back in the ’90s and early 2000s on immigration issues say it’s not a crisis — they use big picture numbers… to explain it’s much a lower crossing level than it was before.”

But, he said, the difference between then and now is “going from Mexican citizens crossing between ports illegally to people now from Central America and farther away — over 50 percent have been non-Mexican two of the last three years, and it looks like we’re headed there again in 2018.”

“But two other changes have occurred during that time — one, up through 2011, it was almost exclusively single adults, 90 percent plus… now we’re seeing 40 percent of our border crossers illegally are families and children. Very different demographic, a very different population,” he continued. “So when we have an immigration framework that’s inviting some of the most vulnerable people in our region, in our hemisphere, into the hands of some of the most dangerous criminal organizations in the world, I would say that’s a crisis.”

“It’s a crisis in Central America where they’re losing their energy and youth, it’s a crisis in Mexico where the collateral damage from being on these routes of human smuggling is extensive — the murder rate in Tamaulipas has gone up double in the last 18 months alone, 122 political candidates were murdered during the election cycle in Mexico, 350 civil servants in the last year — that’s a crisis that affects daily life all throughout Mexico on these routes of smuggling.”

McAleenan said crisis is also reflected in “what we’re seeing at the border: 350 people dying in the process of crossing the river or deserts every year, being held in stash houses, being put in the back of semi-trailers with 60, 70, 80 other people, put at extreme risk by callous smugglers.”

“I think that’s a crisis, and I think that knowing that it’s our legal framework that’s inviting this process, knowing that we can fix it with actions of Congress, that’s something we need to respond to,” he added.

On the detention of minors who have crossed with or without their families, the commissioner was asked what he sees as the moral dimension and CBP’s responsibilities to these children.

“I think the moral dimension is we need to protect them. We need to protect them, ideally, before they even undertake this perilous journey and are victimized by smugglers and are put in stash houses and many lose their lives in the process,” McAleenan responded.

“But our responsibility when they’re here is to care for them as humanely and safely as we possibly can. That’s what CBP does for the very temporary time that they’re in our holding,” he said. “We have some challenging custody situations — our stations were built to house adults violating the law, not to house children. Though we’ve built some temporary areas … many people have seen images of chain-link fences; those are actually separating different areas so we can protect the children.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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