In press briefings and news releases, federal officials tout success on border

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump heated up in Congress last week, the Trump administration has been touting what it describes as policy success on the southern border.

It started last Thursday, with a press briefing by Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, in Washington, D.C. Border apprehensions in October hit an all-year low, he said, with authorities capturing just over 42,000 migrants. That was compared to May, when over 140,000 migrants were captured.

Morgan said the lower apprehensions were “defying typical seasonal trends.” But border apprehensions have often peaked around spring, according to CBP statistics on crossings from 2013 through last year, as migrants presumably take advantage of milder weather to trek across the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts or elsewhere. In 2018, crossings peaked in May with under 52,000 apprehensions.

Morgan said the demographics of border crosses are also changing. Mexican migrants now outpace those from other Central American countries. Sixty-five percent of apprehensions are now single adults — a complete reversal from earlier this year, when 65 percent of apprehensions were family units.

But agents are still encountering “fake families,” according to Morgan.

“Children are being rented and recycled,” he said.

Morgan said officials are seeing more criminal activity on the border, including weapons and drugs. In October, border officials confiscated 54,000 pounds of drugs, with fentanyl and methamphetamine seizures both on the rise. That’s a 45 percent increase over the same time last year.

Still, Morgan highlighted what he said were efforts to manage migrants. They contrasted it against what they described as inaction of Congress, which is partially controlled by Democrats.

“Earlier this year we sounded an alarm — actually, quite a bit — with respect to the border crisis and asking [sic] Congress repeatedly to act to fix the loopholes in our broken immigration system,” he said. “Unfortunately, not a single piece of meaningful legislation has been brought forward.”

“As a result, this country stood by and watched as the crisis worsened,” he said. “However, in the continued absence of congressional action, the president, along with his administration, as well as our hardworking men and women of the Customs and Border Protection and our partner agencies, has taken action.”

When it came time for questions, reporters asked about a lot more than the statistics. “Are there any senior officials at DHS [Department of Homeland Security] who have actually been confirmed by the Senate?” one reporter asked, according to a transcript of the press conference released by the White House.

“That’s of no concern for me,” Morgan said, according to the transcript. “When I get up every day, the fact that I have ‘Acting’ in front of my title is irrelevant.”

A reporter also asked why “your officers are being arrested more often than other law enforcement agencies,” citing a report from 2018 that showed more than 500 CBP agents have been arrested for drug trafficking and other crimes. Morgan blamed “the rhetoric that comes from the mainstream media.”

“Our congressional leaders,” Morgan said, “they call [agents] ‘Nazis,’ and they say that we’re making people drink from toilets or running concentration camps.”

“So they’re breaking the law because they’re being called mean things by the media?” the reporter said.

“That’s what gets them frustrated,” Morgan said.

The public-relations push continued on Saturday, with a news release on “arrest histories of illegal aliens who request DACA,” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program started under former President Barack Obama that allows some childhood immigrants to defer their deportations.

Twelve percent of applicants have arrests for various crimes, including “assault, battery, rape and driving under the influence,” according to the release. Two-hundred and eighteen had “more than ten arrests.” The release gave no percentage for this group, which appears to be around .02 percent of applicants.

The report focused only on people who requested DACA and not on those who actually received it. And the Obama administration also barred people with certain criminal records from receiving DACA — a detail that was not mentioned in the news release.

Federal officials were releasing these findings for the sake of “transparency” in light of “the previous administration’s decision to circumvent the laws,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, stated in the news release.

“This agency is obligated to continue accepting DACA requests,” he stated. “We hope this data provides a better sense of the reality.”

On Friday, border officials with the Big Bend Sector of Border Patrol also gave a briefing on apprehension stats in a teleconference with local reporters. The meeting was on-background, with reporters asked to attribute information to a senior Customs and Border Protection official.

The meeting touched on the same crossing statistics but was less partisan and combative than the press conferences and news releases in Washington. “The numbers are positive news,” the senior local official told reporters. “It’s the fifth consecutive month where we’ve seen an overall decline in the number of apprehensions.”

The official highlighted cooperation with countries like Mexico, which this year deployed soldiers on its southern border with Guatemala. He attributed the relative rise of Mexican migrants to policies like these, which prevent some Central American migrants from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I think the real contributing factor is the significant decrease in the Central American numbers,” he said.

He highlighted the unique challenges of working in Big Bend Sector — where he said just 500 agents patrol the largest border sector on the U.S.-Mexico border. He said technology was key to protecting this rugged and sparsely populated region. And while he wouldn’t name any specifics, he outlined the trends in criminal activity on the border.

“What we typically see is smaller organizations,” he said. “The cartel works as a network of organizations. Specific areas will be led by a smaller group.”

The official declined to offer details on the recent shooting of a Guatemalan migrant in Sanderson, citing an FBI investigation. But he said there was “a very significant altercation” between the man and a Border Patrol agent and that the man remains in federal custody. He wouldn’t say if he thought he was involved in organized crime but said there was in general “a higher level of violent attacks towards agents here and in other sectors.”

“Unfortunately, that seems to be a trend we’re seeing more,” he said. “It should be concerning to the public as well.”

The official also commented on the proposed transmigrante route through Presidio/Ojinaga — saying it would “bring some challenges” in terms of crime and border enforcement.

“Whenever we see an increase in vehicular traffic,” he said, “That does give opportunity for people who are looking to carry about some level of criminal activity. It does create a larger haystack, so to speak, for them to blend into.”

One reporter asked if a transmigrante route could create a need for more agents — and if local officials might lobby federal authorities for more manpower.

“Absolutely,” the official said, citing the important role personnel played in border enforcement. “I may even quote you on that.”