Customs and Border Protection Commission Kevin McAleenan told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that his department has made “great strides” using current funding from Congress to repair or replace sections of southern border fencing, and “CBP’s ability to detect and interdict illegal border crossings has never been higher.”
“We have turned around our hiring and ended the last fiscal year with almost 500 more frontline officers and agents,” McAleenan said. “We maintain the most capable civilian law enforcement Air and Marine Operations in the world and are accelerating the development and deployment of cutting-edge technology to our workforce. And we’ve extended our shared zone of security through enhanced international partnerships and capacity building throughout the hemisphere and beyond.”
Challenges faced by CBP, he said, include increased rates of drug smuggling as well as “changing trends and illegal crossings that impact security, exploit our laws, and challenge our resources and personnel.”
On Dec. 3, the Border Patrol “saw the highest numbers of arrivals at our Southwest border in years”: 3,029 illegal entries and inadmissible persons including more than 1,100 children.
“To put this in perspective, we will more than double last year’s record number of family units at this rate,” McAleenan said.
Migration from Mexico remains historically low, while the majority of illegal border crossings are by citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The number of asylum claims has doubled over the past year.
“Crossing with a child is a near guarantee of a speedy release. These deficiencies ensure a high likelihood of success and the trends they invited have significant ramifications,” McAleenan continued. “First, our infrastructure is incompatible with this reality. Our Border Patrol stations and ports of entry were built to handle mostly male, single adults in custody not families or children. Second, the illegal crossings have a much different character with families and children coming across in large groups, and simply presenting themselves to border patrol agents.”
As the homeland security appropriations bill is threatening a government shutdown over the lack of agreement between the House and Senate over border wall funding, the CBP commission stressed an “acute need for legislative action” on priorities for his department.
Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked McAleenan if CBP has “ever fired tear gas at young children on the border prior to November 25th,” when officers clashed with migrants rushing the border from Tijuana into San Ysidro.
“We did not fire tear gas at young children on November 25th, but yes, CS gas has been used to address large groups seeking to enter unlawfully,” McAleenan replied. “Actually, in San Diego sector in the same exact area, almost five years to the day, a large group that did include women and children in it, as well.”
“The full description of this situation will come out in the review and we’ll be transparent about the findings from that. Our use-of-force policy has been rigorously reviewed. It was built on recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum, and it’s resulted… in significant improvements across the border,” he said. “I would offer that I don’t think any law enforcement agency has made more progress in the training and the tactics used by our officers and agents than CBP. In 2012, we had 55 uses of force with a firearm. In 2018, we had 15, despite increasing numbers of apprehensions and assaults. So we’re making tremendous progress in this area.”
McAleenan reported that, since June 20, 81 children have been separated from their parents at the border, but he said none of the separations were done just for a parent entering the country without documentation.
“They are for child welfare. We’re talking about examples of a parent wanted for murder, a parent who’s had a stroke and needs to be taken the emergency room,” he said. “Those are the kind of situations where-where children are being separated at the border. It’s for child welfare or a parents who’s unable to take care of the child.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told the commissioner, “It looks to me like the transnational criminal organizations — sometimes we refer to them as drug cartels — but they do a whole lot more illegal activity. It looks to me like they’re winning.”
“I think they’re making a tremendous profit off the backs of very, very vulnerable people right now, $2.5 billion for human smuggling,” McAleenan replied.
Smugglers are currently fetching $7,000 to $8,000 per Central American on average, he said, and that number is “increasing every year.”
Congress has expressly not approved any wall construction made of concrete, like the prototypes viewed by President Trump in Southern California earlier this year. McAleenan told senators that he doesn’t want concrete, but thick, steel bollard fencing incorporated “with a modern wall system with cameras, sensors, and access roads.”
“Right, technology. Well, some — of course, we’re on board for most of that and we want to talk about expanding it,” replied Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).