SAN DIEGO – US Border Patrol has apprehended close to a quarter million unaccompanied children and families already in fiscal year 2019 – and there's no indication that the numbers are slowing.
The historic spike comes as Washington continues to debate the merits of a border wall.
CBN News recently visited with Border Patrol agents in the San Diego sector to better understand the border dynamics that are shaping much of the debate in Washington.
The San Diego sector is unique on several counts: it shares a 60-mile border with Mexico making it the smallest Border Patrol sector on the southwest border. It's also home to the some of the newest border wall technology – a 14-mile stretch of double fencing that's already making a difference.
Fence Makes a Difference
But it shares, along with the other sectors, a deepening burden: how to best protect the border even as agents are daily diverted to care for record numbers of immigrant families and children who need processing, transportation, shelter, and food and often, medical care.
In March, Border Patrol agents apprehended 100,000 immigrants along the southwest border.
San Diego Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott told CBN News that agents feel the stress on several levels – witnessing the pain and suffering of these children and parents and working to process them and care for their needs while keeping the border secure.
Agents Feel the Strain as Border is Overrun
When we talked with him in early April the strain was obvious. "In the last 24 hours I had 148 agents taken out of patrol duties and they're basically babysitting kids. They're at hospitals with sick aliens. They're processing. They're transporting," he said, "and they're doing things other than patrolling the border. That's created huge vulnerabilities to now where our effectiveness is dropping."
There's no doubt that violence and poverty in Central America are pushing many of these immigrants to head to the U.S. border. But what Scott wants to talk about is a problem he sees that Congress could fix: a legal loophole forcing Border Patrol to quickly release the families it has processed. "We have to release families within 20 days and it doesn't take long in today's social media environment for that message to get out," he said, "once that message got out, we got overrun."
Scott admits that San Diego's numbers don't compare to the numbers in south Texas, but says in fiscal year 2019 his sector has already processed double the immigrants it did in 2018.
Catch and Release
With his facilities at maximum capacity, Scott has been forced to adopt a policy informally known as catch and release. "We're basically having to process people and then immediately release them into the U.S." Those immigrants receive an immigration court date, but it's months or even years out and many will never show up.
Amidst the struggle to care for the current wave of immigrants, San Diego border patrol agents are enjoying one of the first sections of a new wall that could serve as a prototype for other sectors. It's actually double fencing with a primary wall closest to the Mexico border along with a secondary wall and a law enforcement zone in between that's large enough for a Border Patrol vehicle to comfortably drive.
The 14-mile section stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the base of the Otay mountains. It's a vast improvement over the previous 6-foot high wall made out of Vietnam War era landing mats. The new walls rise up 30 feet and have a bollard structure hollow steel beams filled with concrete and steel rods. They allow agents to see through the barrier which enhances security.
Agent Fabian Carbajal says the old barrier prevented agents from being able to see illegal crossers getting ready to jump. "They would stage 20 people at a time, wait for vehicles to go through," he said, "Someone would jump over with a power saw, run to our secondary wall and just breach it – make a hole through it – stage back in Mexico and just wait and see if the Border Patrol would respond. Then the group would go through and make it up north."
Goal: Make it More Difficult for Illegal Immigrants to Cross
Scott doesn't pretend the new wall can't be beaten. That's not the point. He's happy that it simply makes it more difficult for illegal immigrants to sneak across. By slowing them down, Scott can spread out his agents, creating a human barrier that saves time and money.
"Where we've put that in place we've been able to increase our effectiveness from about 10 percent to over 95 percent," he said, "and more importantly, we are able to pull 180 agents out of that area and then redeploy them to other parts of the border."
Scott still faces big challenges. The stretch of new wall abruptly ends in a mountainous area with absolutely no border barrier. In total, his sector includes 17 miles of open border. It's a challenge the other sectors face as well. More than half of the U.S.-Mexico border has no fencing or wall.
Agents in the San Diego sector secure these areas on horseback and ATV's. They utilize technology like underground sensors. But they're also up against open spaces with no electricity and no cell coverage. Scott says even locals often don't understand what's at stake.
"They don't realize that less than 14 miles off the coast we have no border fence whatsoever. And anything can cross through here. And if anyone thinks that the criminal organizations and the terrorist organizations and even nation-state countries aren't trying to exploit this crisis – they're fooling themselves."