A wall spanning the Mexican border along with a number of other programs and technological investments are necessary to curb illegal immigration and drug traffic into the United States, according to Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who testified before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security on Wednesday.
McAleenan was confirmed to the post last month and provided his vision for the agency, which is struggling with a staffing shortage and rising border traffic.
“Even as we continue to enhance border security at and between ports of entry, increasing our effectiveness at identifying and interdicting threats, apprehensions of those crossing our border illegally or who are determined to be inadmissible at ports of entry continue to rise,” McAleenan said. “Seizures of illicit hard narcotics are also increasing across all categories, both at and between ports of entry, especially methamphetamine and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.”
McAleenan backed the funding of a “modern” border wall system, a slew of situational awareness sensors, and enhanced non-intrusive inspection equipment to detect drugs at ports of entry. The CBP’s $16.7 billion fiscal year 2019 budget request is an increase of about $300 million, and includes $1.6 billion to fund 65 miles of new construction toward President Trump’s proposed border wall. Last year, Congress approved $1.57 billion to fund renovations to existing border fencing and technology. It is estimated that the complete project will cost $18 billion over the next decade.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) noted border asylum requests are on the rise and said drug cartels are taking advantage of lax immigration laws.
“During the last few months, we observed a troubling spike in illegal immigration – over 200 percent more crossings this year than last, and many who are apprehended at the border are not looking to evade capture. They simply turn themselves in to the nearest Border Patrol agent, or CBP officer, and claim a fear of persecution in their country,” McCaul said. “This is what the cartels have coached them to do. Unfortunately, the cartels understand the weakness of our immigration laws all too well.”
Subcommittee Chairwoman Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) argued that while the U.S. welcomes a million legal immigrants into the country each year the nation is being exploited.
“Before 2013, approximately one out of every 100 arriving aliens claimed credible fear, or asylum. Today, more than one out of 10 do so,” she said.
“The message to any transnational criminal organization is, ‘Just get yourself, get your kid, just get to the border. Look for someone, turn yourself in, say the right words and then you can disappear into the interior of the United States,’ with a very small percentage showing up for their court date in the future, correct?”
“That’s exactly right. These transnational criminal organizations are preying on these individuals. They’re charging them $5,000 to $10,000 to smuggle them to the border and allow them to use their area of the border to cross. That enriches organizations that are threatening the security and safety of Mexican citizens and it puts those children at risk of assault and/or violence,” he said of younger illegal immigrants. “About 96 percent of Mexican unaccompanied children are returned within three years. That number drops to three percent for people from other countries.”
McAleenan added that “once a Border Patrol agent apprehends them, and usually they’re actually looking for a Border Patrol agent once they cross the border, they’re taken into custody, processed and quickly turned over via our partners at Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Health and Human Services, where they can be properly cared for.”
“They then have their sponsor vetted and are turned over by someone in Health and Human Services to someone living the United States, possibly illegally.”
Subcommittee Ranking Member Filemon Vela (D) represents the 34th district in Harlingen, Texas, which is near the U.S.-Mexico border. Stating that CBP officers inspect 6.5 billion of cargo on a daily basis, he asked for McAleenan’s commitment to fix staffing problems within the agency.
“CBP’s officer staffing shortage and difficulty in retaining professional Border Patrol agents are self-inflicted vulnerabilities,” said Vela. “The CBP staffing issues are critical to border security, yet the administration continues to avoid these problems.”
The CBP staffing shortage, as reported to the subcommittee this past January, stood at 1,200 open and funded officer positions with 2,500 total positions that need to be filled. McAleenan reported that more than 40 hiring improvements have been made over the past year and that nearly 70 percent of new Border Patrol agents were hired in 313 days or less versus the 496-day baseline established in January 2016.
McAleenan said that the Anti-Border Corruption Reauthorization Act of 2017, which was co-sponsored by McSally, will help in expediting the hiring process by allowing him to waive a polygraph test requirement for candidates who have “demonstrated, long-standing history of public trust and meet specific criteria: current, full-time state and local law enforcement officers; current, full-time federal law enforcement officers; and veterans, active-duty service members, and reservists.” He said that from FY 2015 to FY 2017 the total number of applicants to positions agency-wide has increased 73 percent, and 41 percent from FY 2016 to FY 2017.
“This streamlined process has helped us to grow our workforce by reducing the number of qualified candidates who drop out due to process fatigue or accepting more timely job offers elsewhere,” he said. “CBPs background investigation time is approximately 90 days for a Tier 5 level investigation, which is required for all of CBP’s law enforcement officer applicants and 90 percent of CBP applicants overall.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking member of the full committee, said that border security challenges are more nuanced than simply erecting a wall. Thompson said that during last month’s subcommittee hearing, the Government Accountability Office testified that Customs and Border Protection does not have the metrics to gauge how a wall would contribute to border security.
Additionally, Thompson said that illegal immigrants should not be torn apart from their children when apprehended.
“The practice is inhumane, excessively punitive and can deliberately interfere with their legal right to request asylum,” Thompson said.
As of March, McAleenan said, illegal immigrants who were arrested trying to cross the border increased over 203 percent over the previous year, and increased 37 percent from February to March this year alone.
“CBP is committed to working with our domestic and international government partners to secure our border and anticipate — and even prevent — increases in apprehensions,” the commissioner said.