‘Crisis’?: ‘Situation’ on Mexican border worsens as politicians fight over label

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, wouldn’t call the border situation a crisis two weeks ago. Now, he says, it’s reached that point.

Mr. Judd said the Border Patrol is surging agents to the U.S.-Mexico boundary, pulling them off regular duty stations at the northern border or highway checkpoints in Arizona to help out closer to the line. That means the agency is so overwhelmed that it can’t handle its duties without those changes — thus, a crisis.

“If you were to ask me today, right now … ‘Are we in a crisis? Are our resources overrun?’ I would say yes,” Mr. Judd told The Washington Times.

A high-level group of Republican members of Congress is slated to visit the border Monday to drive home that assessment. The White House and the Homeland Security Department have repeatedly rejected the “crisis” label and instead called it a “challenge.”

It’s a question on the lips of anyone involved in immigration right now.

The numbers tell a complicated story.

The Border Patrol made 96,974 arrests in February. That’s the third-highest month in records dating back more than a decade, topped only by the peak of the 2019 surge in April and May of that year.

Illegal immigration across the southwestern border is usually seasonal, and the number last month was the highest for February since 2006. It was also 45% higher than February 2019, which suggests this year could exceed that last surge year.

The number of unaccompanied juveniles whom the Border Patrol nabbed in February was the fourth-highest on record, topped by May 2019 and May and June of 2014, which was the original UAC surge.

But the number of families was far from record pace. The 18,945 family migrants nabbed by Border Patrol was less than a quarter of the peak of May 2019 and 35% below February 2019.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas

After making a secretive trip to the border a week ago, Mr. Mayorkas repeated his sense that there was no crisis and told Univision that the situation was manageable.

“No, the situation is not out of control,” he said. “It is most certainly challenging, both from a logistics perspective and also from a humanitarian perspective.”

He also renewed his blame of the Trump administration. His predecessors at Homeland Security made major changes to the immigration system and created a “pent-up demand,” he said — one that the Biden administration has apparently unleashed.

On Saturday, Mr. Mayorkas’ department acknowledged “record” levels of illegal immigration at the southwestern border, and the secretary ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get involved in housing the children who are now crowding border-holding facilities.

Sen. John Cornyn

Mr. Cornyn, Texas Republican, visited a shelter for unaccompanied juveniles that the Biden team just opened, and he said he asked the manager whether it was a crisis.

“He said this is a Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf, with tropical-storm-force winds on the coast. He said it’s coming,” Mr. Cornyn said.

Brandon Judd, National Border Patrol Council president

The Border Patrol has dealt with those numbers before. Mr. Judd recalled the massive numbers of single adult crossers, mostly Mexican, in the late Clinton years and early Bush years.

Then there was a surge of juveniles in 2014, a surge of families in 2015 and 2016, and again in 2019. Each time, he said, the solution was to be able to speed up the removal of people who didn’t have valid claims for protection.

During the previous administration, thanks to a pandemic health emergency order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost all migrants were rebuffed at the border, including the unaccompanied children. The Biden team maintained that policy for the most part but made an exception for children — which appears to be why the children are setting records.

Mexico, which had been cooperative during most of the Trump years, has begun to refuse to take back families with children 6 and younger, meaning they are being caught and released into the U.S., an indication of why the family numbers are increasing.

Whatever the incentives, the situation for Border Patrol agents is clear.

According to court documents, hundreds of agents have been pulled from other duties, such as the northern border, and rushed to the Southwest. Local officials say agents have also been pulled off highway checkpoints in Arizona to help process and care for the minors.

“I determine a border security crisis when our resources are being completely overrun, when we just don’t have the resources to keep up with what is going on the border,” Mr. Judd said.

But he said the inside-the-Beltway fight over labeling it a “crisis” is less important than getting the solution right.

Sami DiPasquale, executive director of Abara

Mr. DiPasquale runs an immigrant rights group in El Paso and said his community is getting several hundred migrant family members a day, transported up from the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas.

Speaking at a virtual event hosted by the National Immigration Forum last week, he said the numbers at the U.S.-Mexico border are nothing compared with what other countries are experiencing.

“We’re in a time of unprecedented people movement and forced migration due to war and violence,” he said. “The U.S. is not unique in having people come to our borders. In fact, proportionally we have so many fewer people arriving on our borders proportionally than other countries.”

He pointed to Lebanon, a small Middle Eastern country of about 6 million people, playing host to perhaps 1.5 million refugees from Syria.

As for the population on the move toward the U.S., he said that is where the crisis might be.

“Yeah, there’s definitely crisis situations, and I would say more of that is in Central America and some of the communities people are fleeing from, more so than our situation on the border,” he said. “Yes, there’s definitely challenges to dealing with it, but the crises are in the communities people are being forced to flee from.”

Roberta Jacobson, White House border coordinator

Mrs. Jacobson, a former ambassador to Mexico, said the terms don’t matter.

“We have to do what we do regardless of what anybody calls the situation,” she said. 

“The fact is, we are all focused on improving the situation, on changing to a more humane and efficient system. And whatever you call it wouldn’t change what we’re doing because we have urgency, from the president on down, to fix our system and make sure that we are better at dealing with the hopes and the dreams of these migrants in their home country,” she said.

Mark Napier, chief of staff, Cochise (Arizona) County Sheriff’s Office

Mr. Napier, formerly sheriff in Pima County, said it does matter what label is used.

He compared it to classwork. Calling something a challenge means you need tutoring. Calling something a crisis means you’re failing the course.

“It’s not semantics because the use of language matters. If you call something a crisis, without ascribing blame to it, it compels a different level of response,” he said.

Mr. Napier said the situation is at that point. “There’s been a crisis on the border for a long time. This one is currently bad, but we’ve had crises before. But it’s important to call it what it is and marshal the resources,” he said.

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