Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said on a Tuesday tour of the southwest border that CBP and ICE are trying to do their best to operate within social distancing and COVID-19 protection guidelines while changing policies in some instances to protect officers and vulnerable populations.
Wolf traveled to Nogales, Ariz., on Tuesday to visit the Nogales Commercial Port of Entry and review the construction of new border fencing via an aerial tour. He later visited a CBP Sector Coordination Center in Tucson.
The next day, Wolf flew to San Diego County for a tour of the San Ysidro Port of Entry and another aerial tour.
Wolf told reporters that the main reason for the trip was to meet with CBP officers. “They are on the front lines every day and wanted to show support for them for their mission and what they are doing, and it is critically important I think not only for CBP but also just the DHS frontline workforce,” he said. “We have a lot of folks that cannot telework, cannot stay at home, cannot do the social distancing that we are encouraging all Americans to continue to do. They have to do their frontline mission every day, and I think it is important that senior leadership at the department get out, see what they are doing, see what their concerns are, see how they are operating in the COVID environment and so that’s really what I’m here to do.”
Wolf lauded the border travel restrictions that have been in place since earlier in the pandemic. “They are working, and a lot of this is about how do we keep the borders open, how do we make sure that that legitimate trade and cargo commercial traffic that we need for our supply chain, that we need for our economy to feed American, how do we make sure we keep that going,” he said.
The border has seen increases in transportation of essential goods while seeing a 65 percent to 70 percent drop in nonessential travel, he said, including pedestrian and passenger vehicle crossings.
Wolf also said speedy processing time has been critical when migrants illegally crossing the border are detained “to make sure… we can remove them even quicker so that our Border Patrol men and women are not coming into prolonged contact with these individuals.”
“These are individuals that come to us with little to no medical history, little to no travel history and oftentimes with no identity documents. So it is very difficult to do any type of medical checks on them to understand where they have been and what they have perhaps been exposed to, so we want to make sure that we are not exposing our frontline workforce to that,” he said. “We have been very successful with that.”
Fewer than 17,000 migrants were apprehended trying to cross the border this April compared with more than 110,000 in April 2019. “So we like where the trend is going, but you know again when I talk about that it’s really in the context of the public health crisis that we are in, making sure that we continue to keep the men and women of Border Patrol specifically but CBP generally safe and limited to that exposure,” Wolf said.
He praised the completion of 181 miles of the new border barrier system, stating that construction is “on track to meet 200 miles in early June and 300 and 400 later this year as well.”
Wolf said that “protecting the DHS workforce is obviously a big part of what we are doing in that COVID environment so making sure that we are getting the right PPE, the right materials to our frontline officers whether it’s men and women in Border Patrol here today, whether it is our OFO officers, our TSA officers, our ICE agents, making sure that they have the right materials but also the right guidance.” Asked about feedback that some people crossing border checkpoints were encountering agents not wearing face masks, Wolf replied that “all of our frontline workforce at DHS certainly has the option to wear those PPE and then as we see this unfold we will continue to make different calls and different judgments.”
“They are highly encouraged to wear PPE,” he added. “And again, everyone I saw even folks that really weren’t coming into contact with me that I saw at a distance everyone was wearing PPE, so I don’t think that’s an issue at all.”
The Washington Post reported last week that President Trump wants the border wall painted black to make the bollard fencing look more intimidating and hotter to the touch. The project could raise costs from $500 million to $3 billion. Wolf told reporters that they “will continue to assess what kind of design features the wall has.”
“We are taking a look at perhaps does painting the wall provide a prolonged life of the wall,” he said. “As we know the wall itself, it can rust, there is a useful life of that, life cycle of the wall, so how do we get longer lifespan out of the wall and if that means that if we can paint it and it prolongs the life, then we will do just that. So we are taking a look at it, and seeing what you know the assessment of a number of contracts again, we have the Army Corps that is doing that for us, and we will continue to look at that.”
Asked about the risk of coronavirus among detainees and staff, Wolf noted that ICE has “changed a lot of their policies, a lot of the ICE detention facilities are actually down to about 70 percent to 75 percent capacity trying to do that social distancing where they can – in some cases we can, in some cases, we can’t.”
“ICE has also released a number of individuals on our own accord, individuals that are vulnerable populations, elderly, but also individuals that have some underlying medical conditions and so we are doing that proactively,” he said. “We are also being sued by a number of folks, and unfortunately, we have had to release a number of criminals back into communities dictated to us by courts and judges. We are not happy about that, but we will coordinate that with the local law enforcement if possible and do that, but yes, we are taking a number of steps, ICE has taken a number of steps to make sure that their facilities are safe, they are clean, we can segregate folks when we need to, and again we try to do that as best we can. We are talking to the Bureau of Prisons who also have similar challenges utilizing some lessons learned there and some best practices.”
He estimated “about 200” detainees had been released by court order against the objection of DHS and “I’m not going to guess, but there were a number of criminals, aggravated assault, a number of criminals that were released.”