Transnational criminal organizations are “profiting tremendously” from the woes of largely Central American migrants as the groups seeking entry into the United States at the Mexico border grow larger, Customs and Border Protection Commission Kevin McAleenan said Wednesday.
McAleenan also told the Senate Judiciary Committee that “regardless of whether an individual who has entered illegally has a valid case for protection or asylum, they are increasingly unlikely to be repatriated.”
“Assurance of release due to court rulings, compounded by a multi-year immigration court backlog, means that there is no border enforcement for families,” the CBP chief said in prepared testimony. “Indeed, only 1.5 percent of family units from Central America apprehended in FY 2017 have been removed to their countries of origin, despite the fact that most will not end up having valid claims to remain in the U.S. when their court proceeding concludes.”
McAleenan noted that the Border Patrol “is now apprehending larger and larger groups — more than 70 groups of migrants with over 100 members” in this fiscal year, most of those originating from Guatemala and Honduras. The largest group, with 330 migrants, arrived 94 miles from the nearest Border Patrol station in New Mexico.
“Human smugglers choose the timing and location for these large group crossings strategically, in order to disrupt border security efforts, create a diversion for smuggling of narcotics, and allow single adults seeking to evade capture to attempt to sneak in,” he said. “Even worse, these smugglers visit horrible violence, sexual assault, and extortion on some of the most vulnerable people in our hemisphere.”
Smugglers have been offering participants in caravans — which McAleenan defined as 500 or more migrants in an organized group — an “express” route from Western Guatemala to the U.S. border taking five to seven days. “The new Mexican administration’s policies of regularizing the presence of migrants, rather than enforcing Mexican immigration law through repatriation, has contributed” to the growing trend, he added.
“Given the modified routes and awareness of the certainty of release if migrants arrive as a family unit, we are seeing more families arriving with young children, and more cases of sick children arriving at the border. Accordingly, given the volume and special care and custody requirements presented by these increasing numbers, the demographics of those crossing, and the increase in medical issues, CBP needs urgent and sustained interagency support to safely and appropriately manage the flows, especially of families and children, and to provide for medical needs. CBP is working with its interagency partners to meet these needs,” he said.
“The border security and humanitarian crisis at the Southern Border continues to present significant operational challenges to CBP and DHS, and current trends indicate that it will worsen as we enter the warmer spring months.”
McAleenan told lawmakers that “we need to continue to support the governments in Central America to improve economic opportunities, to address poverty and hunger, and to improve governance and security; we must work with the new administration in Mexico to address the TCOs that prey on migrants; and we must invest in border security, including a modern border barrier system, additional agents and officers, and air and marine support.”
“All of these steps will make a difference,” he said. “But we must also confront and address the vulnerabilities in our legal framework for lasting change at the border. As we engage in discussion of CBP’s border security and immigration missions today, I urge the committee to consider the acute need for legislative action.”