Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said “everything’s on the table” to stem the flow of illegal immigration in dealing with the incoming presidential administration in Mexico as the U.S. launches a new messaging campaign to try to deter Central American migrants fleeing violent countries from making the perilous journey north.
The Friday event at the Bipartisan Policy Center was interrupted thrice by protesters. “You’re a child abuser! You’re orphaning children! You’re kidnapping children! How do you sleep at night? How do you sleep at night? Shame on you!” one man seated in the second row shouted before being led out of the room.
Two more protesters stood and spoke shortly after that, with one quoting the inscription on the Statue of Liberty and stating it’s “a bipartisan promise to the world.”
McAleenan highlighted the “dramatic difference” in immigration flows over the past five years, from Mexican citizens driven by seasonal work to three of the past five years being more than 50 percent non-Mexican immigrants. He also noted the increase in family units crossing the border and the increase in asylum claims.
Discussing issues with trying to house those families, he noted that CBP facilities were built in the past for single adults and short-term detention instead of families; the U.S. has “tried to adjust,” he said.
“We’re going to have to keep looking at that. This a phenomenon that’s going to continue in this manner — if we’re not going to get a legislative solution, and I’d love to get to solutions, if we’re not going to be able to partner internationally to address some of the flow concerns, we have to have a better arrival point for children and families,” McAleenan said. “We don’t want them crossing between points of entry and ending up in a Border Patrol station.”
The commissioner said U.S. officials are not denying entry to people with asylum claims at busy ports of entry such as San Ysidro, where immigrants have been left waiting in Mexico as officials try to process all arrivals. McAleenan said some immigrants have been asked to come back another day as they “monitor and balance” the port of entry flows.
“It’s driven by economic concerns and lack of economic opportunity — that’s really fundamental to understand,” he said of today’s immigration. “There’s a lot of discussion about gang violence, there’s a lot of discussion about coercion, but economics is the fundamental core of this.”
He acknowledged that “some” of the immigrants are fleeing for their lives, and said the security situation in Central America needs to be addressed along with economics and good governance.
McAleenan was asked about conditions being so bad in home countries that immigrants take the immense risk with their families to make the journey north to the United States. The CBP commissioner said “many don’t know” how the security situation is along the route.
“This process of smugglers controlling the access is really a phenomenon of the last 5-10 years,” he said. “Previously, if you wanted to migrate to the U.S., you could kind of chart your own path, get transportation up to the Mexican border, see where other people are gathering and try to cross together with a group. Now, you can’t get access to that border without paying a smuggler… It’s a $500 additional fee just for that last inch to cross into the U.S.”
There’s a lot of family reunification seen in the current migration flow, the commissioner continued, adding “they’re attempting this journey because they don’t realize how dangerous it is and what can happen to the family.”
“That’s why we’re trying to get the message out,” he said. “We’re currently working with Central American governments and with our own messaging campaign to explain the dangers of that journey and also to appeal to the potential and the future for economic opportunity at home.”
McAleenan said the messaging campaign in Spanish and indigenous dialects is new, so “we’ll get back to you on whether it’s effective in reaching that audience and creating that deterrence.”
Asked about partnerships with Mexico, McAleenan mentioned advances in cargo processing and stressed that on border security “you have to work together.”
He broached the idea of working with the UN Human Rights Commission “on potentially other ways to support asylum-seekers, both in Mexico, other countries in the hemisphere as well as the U.S.”
“I think there’s a lot of ways we can approach this and everything’s on the table with the incoming team,” McAleenan said, as incoming Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is sworn in on Dec. 1.