Unprecedented border crossings prompt CBP commissioner visit to RGV

Posted: Tuesday, December 15, 2015 8:16 pm | Updated: 8:24 pm, Tue Dec 15, 2015.KRISTIAN HERNANDEZ | STAFF WRITER,  The Monitor

McALLEN—The man tasked with overseeing the largest federal law enforcement agency in the United States visited the Rio Grande Valley Sector on Monday in the midst of an unprecedented end of the year spike of unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally.

United States Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske stopped by the Border Patrol Holding Station in McAllen, where most of the 6,465 unaccompanied minors that crossed between Oct.1 and Nov. 30 were processed. This was a more than 101 percent increase compared to the same time last year, according to CBP statistics.

“The numbers have been increasing, and it’s certainly of concern to me and to the rest of the Department of Homeland Security,” Kerlikowske said during a news conference. “Historically at this time of the year, the numbers would not be at the levels that we see right now.”

The Border Patrol central processing center for unaccompanied immigrant children at 3700 W. Ursula Ave. was opened in the summer of 2014, when nearly 69,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the border illegally in South Texas.

The center can house up to 1,000 children but is also being used to process family units which have also hit unprecedented numbers during last two months. Between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30, more than 8,500 family units crossed the South Texas border through the Rio Grande Valley Sector, which stretches from the mouth of the Rio Grande in Cameron County to the Starr-Zapata county line.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to the recent surge was to order the Texas National Guard troops on Tuesday to remain at the South Texas Border, extending a mission that began in 2014 after the first surge of unaccompanied minors.

“Texas will not sit idle in the face of this challenge,” Abbott said in a news release. “We will not be victimized as a state by a federal government’s apathetic response to border security.”

Kerlikowske said he does not think this is an issue of border security but said he welcomed the continued presence of the Texas National Guard. Acting Deputy Chief Patrol Agent Robert M. Duff echoed Kerlikowske’s praises of state law enforcement working alongside their agents.

“Daily, we are co-located. We exchange information for operational deployment the National Guard,” Duff said. “My entire career I worked closely with them and DPS here. Like the commissioner said, it’s an excellent working relationship.”

Kerlikowske said they have sufficient Border Patrol agents, “particularly in this area,” and have the option of temporarily bringing additional agents from other sectors but have not found the need to do so despite the recent surge.

When asked what he thought about Abbott’s comments, Kerlikowske said he had not seen or read them.

“I’m not so much in the political realm. I’m much more in the realm of trying to manage Customs and Border Protection to get the job done to make sure that people are protected and taken care of,” Kerlikowske said.

Most unaccompanied minors apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley in the past two months are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, Kerlikowske said.

“The greater question is how long will this continue, and what is Congress going to do about immigration reform?” Kerlikowske said. “What are these longer term improvements that are needed particularly in those three Central American countries?”

In January, President Barack Obama requested more than $1 billion to help improve the economies and safety of the three Central American countries, but it has not been approved by Congress.

Meanwhile, CBP is outfitting a warehouse next to the McAllen center to house more unaccompanied children and family units in case the numbers remain high, Kerlikowski said.

The Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services have begun a process to expand temporary capacity of current providers from 7,900 to 8,400 beds in November and is preparing for temporary bed space in the event that additional beds are needed, according to CBP’s website.

“We are adequately financed. We have resources in the Border Patrol through Secretary Johnson and the Department of Homeland Security. We are going to be fine to deal with this even at this level,” Kerlikowske said.