On a 90-degree day in early May, hundreds of migrants gathered on US soil near a border post in El Paso. Many had waited for days, without food, shelter or enough water and toilets, before Border Patrol agents let them through the gate and took them to the detention facility.
A few miles away, at the air-conditioned El Paso Convention Center, top government officials and security contractors gathered for an annual event showcasing the latest technology to help protect America’s borders: robotic dogs, watchtowers, rough terrain equipment, drones and counter drones.
The contrast in the scenes illustrates a core challenge of Customs and Border Protection’s mission. The agency, which includes Border Patrol, was created after the attacks of September 11, 2001. It is website It says, “Our top priority is preventing terrorists and their weapons from entering the United States.”
While your mission has remained the same over the years, your responsibilities have increased. In addition to securing the border, one of the most pressing issues it has faced in the last decade is a humanitarian one, driven by the people who cross the border, many of whom are fleeing violence and poverty. Although few pose security threats, the US government has been sending the nation’s largest law enforcement agency to arrest and then treat the refugees.
“We have to evolve, extremely fast,” Manuel Padilla Jr., CBP assistant commissioner, told the crowd of convention center contractors selling military-grade equipment in May. “And that’s in the migration piece.”
CBP, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House declined to comment on the situation in El Paso.
The agency’s budget has always been heavily oriented toward border security. For example, the agency has invested in anti drone team that could detect and shoot down a drone operated by a cartel. By comparison, a minuscule amount of the budget goes to providing shelter and care for the influx of emaciated immigrants.
Although some senior officials have privately acknowledged the need to evolve, Padilla’s public sentiment is not universally shared.
Some Border Patrol troop members want to focus on agency goals. main mission: “to detect and prevent the illegal entry of persons into the United States”, not care them after they break the law. Some see the humanitarian mission as an invitation to more illegal immigration. Republicans want law enforcement officers, even though they are decades old.
These disagreements are just one part of the larger and more volatile debate over the country’s immigration policies. Even so, scenes of thousands of desperate migrants becoming Border Patrol agents have become a public face.
When CBP first saw this migration trend in 2014, some officials believed that other federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Health and Human Services, would be better suited to lead the response.
Gil Kerlikowske, the CBP commissioner during the Obama administration, said that idea was not well received when he raised the issue with senior officials. “This is the border, and this is his problem,” he said they told him.
In that sense, not much has changed.
The Department of Homeland Security, where CBP resides, may request assistance from other federal agencies during times of high illegal crossings. But in the end, it’s CBP’s responsibility.
Successive administrations have focused on ways to decrease the number of illegal crossings and prevent a humanitarian crisis on the US side of the border.
The Trump administration implemented punitive policies to deter migrants from crossing the border, in one case separating families and in others restricting access to asylum.
The Biden administration, which has seen the largest influx of migrant crossings at the southern border at a time when more people are displaced globally than ever before, has focused on reducing eligibility for asylum and adding some new ones. legal pathways to enter the country.
But because such policies are set by the executive branch and change frequently, they are unlikely to have a lasting effect.
Without the political will to reorganize CBP to support its humanitarian mission, the agency will likely continue to rely on temporary solutions, as it has for the past decade.
When spikes in migration threaten to overwhelm resources, CBP may add temporary holding facilities. The agency has also made significant progress since 2014 to ensure facilities are more appropriate for children and facilities stocked with food, water, baby formula, diapers and other necessities.
CBP has hired hundreds of people to process migrants and perform administrative work, taking over from Border Patrol agents who had been temporarily reassigned to these roles. And President Biden requested a $4.7 billion emergency reserve for fiscal year 2024 to facilitate access to funds in a crisis.
The flaws in this ad hoc response were apparent in El Paso before the expiration of a pandemic-era health measure known as Title 42 in early May. The Biden administration had spent nearly two years planning for the expiration of the policy, which they hoped would bring its biggest influx of immigrants yet. Authorities predicted that El Paso would be one of the most popular crossing points.
Yet hundreds of migrants, many of whom made long and dangerous journeys to reach the United States, waited behind a border gate, where they were largely shielded from public view. The border facilities were full.
When some migrants arrived at CBP processing centers, they were so dehydrated and covered in sand that agents had trouble getting their fingerprints, according to the U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and described the situation on condition of anonymity. . .
CBP did not say how many people had been waiting for days. A senior official said there was no formal decision to keep migrants outdoors for extended periods when facilities ran out of space. There was a Similar situation in San Diego. The official, authorized only to speak anonymously, defended the agency’s response and its delivery of supplies to outdoor detainees in El Paso. Another CBP official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the agency had an obligation to provide proper care to the migrants, but doing so was difficult since moving them from the border to a detention center was the top priority.
Hours before the May 11 border policy change Raúl Ortiz, the recently retired Border Patrol chief, stood near the gate in El Paso that prevented some 1,000 migrants from walking further into the country. At times that week there were more than 2,500 people there, he said, but the supplies were only delivered that afternoon.
The endorsement of sending the migrants to the facilities was a far cry from the vision Ortiz outlined at the expo center a day earlier. “I want our processing facilities to run like Chick-fil-As,” she said, referring to the fast food chain’s quick service.
Refugee response should be an established part of the agency, Ortiz said.
“You have a border security mission, and you have a humanitarian mission, and sometimes they clash,” Ortiz said at the El Paso security expo in May. “But as the leader of the Border Patrol and my fellow chiefs, we want to try to figure out how to handle them equally. And then you have to evolve as an organization.”
That could include, for example, creating a dedicated emergency response division or other force within CBP trained to manage the influx of refugees. But no concerted push for such a change has appeared.
“That is a piece that no administration has ever focused on,” said Andrea Flores, a former White House official who worked on these issues in the Obama and Biden administrations.
justin hamel contributed reporting.