There is understandably a great deal of attention currently focused on the southwest border. I want to share the facts, the work that we in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and across the government are doing, and our plan of action. Our personnel remain steadfast in devotion of their talent and efforts in the service of our nation.
The situation at the southwest border is difficult. We are working around the clock to manage it and we will continue to do so. That is our job. We are making progress and we are executing on our plan. It will take time and we will not waver in our commitment to succeed.
We will also not waver in our values and our principles as a Nation. Our goal is a safe, legal, and orderly immigration system that is based on our bedrock priorities: to keep our borders secure, address the plight of children as the law requires, and enable families to be together. As noted by the President in his Executive Order, “securing our borders does not require us to ignore the humanity of those who seek to cross them.” We are both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. That is one of our proudest traditions.
We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years. We are expelling most single adults and families. We are not expelling unaccompanied children. We are securing our border, executing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) public health authority to safeguard the American public and the migrants themselves, and protecting the children. We have more work to do.
This is not new. We have experienced migration surges before – in 2019, 2014, and before then as well. Since April 2020, the number of encounters at the southwest border has been steadily increasing. Border Patrol Agents are working around the clock to process the flow at the border and I have great respect for their tireless efforts. To understand the situation, it is important to identify who is arriving at our southwest border and how we are following the law to manage different types of border encounters.
The majority of those apprehended at the southwest border are single adults who are currently being expelled under the CDC’s authority to manage the public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pursuant to that authority under Title 42 of the United States Code, single adults from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are swiftly expelled to Mexico. Single adults from other countries are expelled by plane to their countries of origin if Mexico does not accept them. There are limited exceptions to our use of the CDC’s expulsion authority. For example, we do not expel individuals with certain acute vulnerabilities.
The expulsion of single adults does not pose an operational challenge for the Border Patrol because of the speed and minimal processing burden of their expulsion.
Families apprehended at the southwest border are also currently being expelled under the CDC’s Title 42 authority. Families from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries are expelled to Mexico unless Mexico does not have the capacity to receive the families. Families from countries other than Mexico or the Northern Triangle are expelled by plane to their countries of origin. Exceptions can be made when a family member has an acute vulnerability.
Mexico’s limited capacity has strained our resources, including in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas. When Mexico’s capacity is reached, we process the families and place them in immigration proceedings here in the United States. We have partnered with community-based organizations to test the family members and quarantine them as needed under COVID-19 protocols. In some locations, the processing of individuals who are part of a family unit has strained our border resources. I explain below additional challenges we have encountered and the steps we have taken to solve this problem.
We are encountering many unaccompanied children at our southwest border every day. A child who is under the age of 18 and not accompanied by their parent or legal guardian is considered under the law to be an unaccompanied child. We are encountering six- and seven-year-old children, for example, arriving at our border without an adult. They are vulnerable children and we have ended the prior administration’s practice of expelling them.
An unaccompanied child is brought to a Border Patrol facility and processed for transfer to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Customs and Border Protection is a pass-through and is required to transfer the child to HHS within 72 hours of apprehension. HHS holds the child for testing and quarantine, and shelters the child until the child is placed with a sponsor here in the United States. In more than 80 percent of cases, the child has a family member in the United States. In more than 40 percent of cases, that family member is a parent or legal guardian. These are children being reunited with their families who will care for them.
The children then go through immigration proceedings where they are able to present a claim for relief under the law.
The Border Patrol facilities have become crowded with children and the 72-hour timeframe for the transfer of children from the Border Patrol to HHS is not always met. HHS has not had the capacity to intake the number of unaccompanied children we have been encountering. I describe below the actions we have taken and the plans we are executing to handle this difficult situation successfully.
Why the Challenge is Especially Difficult Now
Poverty, high levels of violence, and corruption in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries have propelled migration to our southwest border for years. The adverse conditions have continued to deteriorate. Two damaging hurricanes that hit Honduras and swept through the region made the living conditions there even worse, causing more children and families to flee.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation more complicated. There are restrictions and protocols that need to be followed. The physical distancing protocol, for example, imposes space and other limitations on our facilities and operations.
The prior administration completely dismantled the asylum system. The system was gutted, facilities were closed, and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers. We have had to rebuild the entire system, including the policies and procedures required to administer the asylum laws that Congress passed long ago.
The prior administration tore down the lawful pathways that had been developed for children to come to the United States in a safe, efficient, and orderly way. It tore down, for example, the Central American Minors program that avoided the need for children to take the dangerous journey to our southwest border.
The previous administration also cut foreign aid funding to the Northern Triangle. No longer did we resource efforts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to tackle the root causes of people fleeing their homes.
And, there were no plans to protect our front-line personnel against the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no appropriate planning for the pandemic at all.
As difficult as the border situation is now, we are addressing it. We have acted and we have made progress. We have no illusions about how hard it is, and we know it will take time. We will get it done. We will do so adhering to the law and our fundamental values. We have an incredibly dedicated and talented workforce.
Actions We Have Taken
In less than two months, Customs and Border Protection stood-up an additional facility in Donna, Texas to process unaccompanied children and families. We deployed additional personnel to provide oversight, care, and transportation assistance for unaccompanied minors pending transfer to HHS custody.
We are standing up additional facilities in Texas and Arizona to shelter unaccompanied children and families. We are working with Mexico to increase its capacity to receive expelled families. We partnered with community-based organizations to test and quarantine families that Mexico has not had the capacity to receive. We have developed a framework for partnering with local mayors and public health officials to pay for 100% of the expense for testing, isolation, and quarantine for migrants. ICE has also developed additional facilities to provide testing, local transportation, immigration document assistance, orientation, travel coordination in the interior, and mechanisms to support oversight of the migrant families who are not expelled.
Working with Mexico and international organizations, we built a system in which migrants who were forced to remain in Mexico and denied a chance to seek protection under the previous administration can now use a virtual platform – using their phones – to register. They do not need to take the dangerous journey to the border. The individuals are tested, processed, and transported to a port of entry safely and out of the hands of traffickers. We succeeded in processing the individuals who were in the Matamoros camp in Mexico. This is the roadmap going forward for a system that is safe, orderly, and fair.
To protect our own workforce, we launched Operation Vaccinate Our Workforce (VOW) in late January. At the beginning of this administration, less than 2 percent of our frontline personnel were vaccinated. Now more than 25 percent of our frontline personnel have been vaccinated.
We directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist HHS in developing the capacity to meet the surge of unaccompanied children. FEMA already established one new facility for HHS to shelter 700 children. They have identified and are currently adding additional facilities. We are working with HHS to more efficiently identify and screen sponsors for children. In two days, we recruited more than 560 DHS volunteers to support HHS in our collective efforts to address the needs of the unaccompanied children.
We are restarting and expanding the Central American Minors program. It creates a lawful pathway for children to come to the United States without having to take the dangerous journey. Under this expansion, children will be processed in their home countries and brought to the United States in a safe and orderly way.
In addition, DHS and HHS terminated a 2018 agreement that had a chilling effect on potential sponsors – typically a parent or close relative – from coming forward to care for an unaccompanied child placed in an HHS shelter. In its place, DHS and HHS signed a new Memorandum of Agreement that promotes the safe and timely transfer of children. It keeps safeguards designed to ensure children are unified with properly vetted sponsors who can safely care for them while they await immigration proceedings.
The Path Forward
We are creating joint processing centers so that children can be placed in HHS care immediately after Border Patrol encounters them. We are also identifying and equipping additional facilities for HHS to shelter unaccompanied children until they are placed with family or sponsors. These are short-term solutions to address the surge of unaccompanied children.
Longer term, we are working with Mexico and international organizations to expand our new virtual platform so that unaccompanied children can access it without having to take the dangerous journey to our border. As mentioned, we are expanding the Central American Minors program to permit more children to be processed in their home countries and if eligible, brought to the United States in a safe and orderly way.
We are developing additional legal and safe pathways for children and others to reach the United States. While we are building a formal refugee program throughout the region, we are working with Mexico, the Northern Triangle countries, and international organizations to establish processing centers in those countries so that individuals can be screened through them and brought to the United States if they qualify for relief under our humanitarian laws and other authorities.
For years, the asylum system has been badly in need of reengineering. In addition to improving the process by which unaccompanied children are placed with family or sponsors, we will be issuing a new regulation shortly and taking other measures to implement the long-needed systemic reforms. We will shorten from years to months the time it takes to adjudicate an asylum claim while ensuring procedural safeguards and enhancing access to counsel.
President Biden laid out a vision of a “multi-pronged approach toward managing migration throughout North and Central America that reflects the Nation’s highest values.” To that end, we are working with the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, and State in an all-of-government effort to not only address the current situation at our southwest border, but to institute longer-term solutions to irregular migration from countries in our hemisphere that are suffering worsening conditions. This is powerfully exemplified by the President’s goal to invest $4 billion in the Northern Triangle countries to address the root causes of migration.
The situation we are currently facing at the southwest border is a difficult one. We are tackling it. We are keeping our borders secure, enforcing our laws, and staying true to our values and principles. We can do so because of the incredible talent and unwavering dedication of our workforce.
I came to this country as an infant, brought by parents who understood the hope and promise of America. Today, young children are arriving at our border with that same hope. We can do this.