By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN
Another record-breaking surge of migrants may attempt to cross the US-Mexico border this spring, alarming officials who are now rushing to build more facilities and lining up prison buses to help accommodate the new arrivals.
The head of the US Border Patrol says he’s getting ready for as many as 8,000 people to be apprehended daily, more than double the daily number of the 2019 surge under the Trump administration.
That staggering number “will probably become the norm over the next 30 to 45 days,” Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz told CNN in an exclusive interview. There have already been 940,000 arrests this fiscal year, which started in October.
The projections paint a grim outlook for the Biden administration just months from a politically contentious midterm election and as the administration tries to project a welcoming message to refugees amid the war in Ukraine.
Border arrests ebb and flow regardless of who is in the Oval Office. But deteriorating conditions in Latin America that were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic are among the factors that have contributed to people wanting to migrate to the United States. That’s already put President Joe Biden in a precarious position following a surge of unaccompanied migrant children last spring and the abrupt arrival of thousands of primarily Haitian migrants last September.
Officials have assessed those surges to better respond to future upticks in migrants and leverage agencies across the government to assist in the event of more arrivals, like the Bureau of Prisons which can provide vehicles for the transportation of migrants from the border to facilities for intake.
“We’re managing a flow that’s significant,” Ortiz told CNN. “As I get to, you know, 7,000 to 7,500 a day average, that’s going to put additional strain.”
Over the course of the last year, Border Patrol has at times faced 8,000 encounters a day.
Internal documents have shown estimates of how many people are within hours or days of the US-Mexico border who might plan to migrate to the United States, according to a source familiar with discussions. The Department of Homeland Security has set up a “Southwest Border Coordination Center” at its headquarters to coordinate across multiple agencies.
But as officials prepare for potential mass migration to the US southern border, some sectors are already feeling the strain. In Del Rio, Texas, agents faced groups of hundreds of migrants turning themselves over to agents for six consecutive days. Facilities across the border are over capacity already and held over 16,000 migrants on Tuesday morning, Ortiz told CNN.
Future of Title 42
For two years, border authorities have relied on a public health authority, known as Title 42, to swiftly expel migrants, including asylum seekers, encountered at the US-Mexico border, an unprecedented departure from traditional protocols. Despite mounting pressure and scrutiny from Biden’s allies, the administration has continued to rely on the authority.
As the pandemic landscape evolves, discussions about terminating that order have picked up speed, sources tell CNN. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release its latest assessment of the authority in the coming days.
Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have called on the administration to do away with the public health authority.
“As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxes it domestic COVID-19 protocols, it is perplexing that the agency continues to recommend the extended use of this draconian policy at the border, contradicting the overwhelming signs of America’s pandemic recovery under President Biden’s leadership,” Sens. Schumer, Bob Menendez, Alex Padilla, and Cory Booker said in a recent statement.
If the public health order is terminated, the administration would return to traditional protocols which might include releasing migrants into the US while they go through their immigration proceedings, detaining migrants, or removing them if they don’t have an asylum claim.
On Thursday, the administration announced a new federal regulation that would shorten the process for migrants making an asylum claim, though it’s not expected to take effect until the summer and will be a slow ramp up.
The change in demographics has been an ongoing challenge for an agency built to address single adult males. Border facilities — akin to jail-like conditions — are not equipped to care for families and children who’ve arrived at the border without their parents, especially in such large numbers, prompting a need for additional facilities.
The Border Patrol uses soft-sided facilities for processing migrants in select locations along the US-Mexico border. But in anticipation of more people, the agency is planning to expand the current footprint of those facilities in Yuma, Arizona, and Del Rio, Texas, Ortiz said.
There are also ongoing discussions about so-called joint processing centers — a new concept where multiple agencies work together to intake migrants. The locations of those centers have not been determined.
“We have, I think, improved conditions across the board. We just need additional capacity and that’s part of why the academy is so important, why our processing coordinators are so important because we want to balance it out against out border security,” Ortiz said, citing the Border Patrol Academy where agents get training before deploying to the field.
Asked about whether the administration plans to offer Covid-19 vaccines to migrants, Ortiz said those discussions are ongoing.
This month, 126 agents graduated from the Border Patrol Academy, including 35 agents this week who will soon be deployed to the field. Even so, the Department of Homeland Security is seeking more help within its workforce. DHS Deputy Secretary John Tien recently asked department personnel to volunteer at the US-Mexico border in an email sent to the workforce.
Border Patrol also detailed 350 additional Border Patrol agents to assist at the US southern border and another 150 agents are helping with processing remotely. The Chief said he also plans to lean on groups, like Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen and the Red Cross, for aid.
“I want to continue those types of relationships, because that’s a big part of our strategy is making sure one that you know, we can do everything we can to secure the border, but we can’t do it by ourselves,” Ortiz said. “We have to work with our communities and partners and everyone else out there.”
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