- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2024

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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has praised Border Patrol agents in recent weeks and vowed to get them the help they need to gain control of an overwhelming surge of migrants, but he has continuously disregarded their expertise in one area: the border wall.

Senior agents have told Congress that the wall — and the lights, cameras, sensors and roads that go with it — is an essential tool in shaping the action at the border.

One called it a “force multiplier.” Several said the wall gives agents “an advantage” over the cartels and the migrants they smuggle into the U.S.

They made those revelations in interviews with the House Oversight and Accountability and Homeland Security committees, which released a staff report Tuesday detailing the agents’ views on the chaos at the border, the need for increased detention of illegal immigrants and the value of walls.

“It slows down the people as they come across, and so we have more time to respond and actually make an apprehension. It also moves people. It’s more difficult to cross through the barriers, and so they move to other areas where the barrier isn’t where we can focus resources,” Aaron Heitke, who was chief patrol agent in the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector until his retirement last summer, told the committees.

At least seven chiefs of the nine southwestern border sectors said walls work. They were interviewed over six months last year as the committees gathered data on the migration crisis.

The border chiefs said they don’t have enough agents to process all the illegal immigrants and have had to pull officers from the field. They said migrants are pouring through the undefended areas. Those migrants are known as “gotaways,” and they are the most worrying of the flow of people.

Cartels are adversaries, controlling the border traffic and raking in cash, the agents said.

The committees released the report as the House held hearings on impeaching Mr. Mayorkas. Republicans say the secretary mismanaged the border, failed to carry out the laws, flouted court orders and lied to Congress and the public. They said he deserves to become the first sitting Cabinet member to be impeached.

Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer, Kentucky Republican, said the agents’ testimony shows how bad the situation has become.

“The Biden administration has failed to secure our southern border and provide those who bravely attempt to control the border sectors with the adequate tools to do so. Fundamental change from the White House is required to stop the transnational criminal organizations profiting from the disaster on the southern border,” Mr. Comer said.

Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mark Green, Tennessee Republican, said the chief patrol agents gave “shocking insights” into Mr. Mayorkas’ management of the border.

“For three years, the men and women of the United States Border Patrol have courageously continued to do their jobs despite Secretary Mayorkas effectively tying their hands behind their backs,” he said.

The agents said their role is limited to defending the border but what happens in the interior determines what they see. Migrants consider catch-and-release a success, encouraging even more to make their way to the U.S.

“I think optimally, other than the rare occasion where you have someone with a crazy medical condition, everyone should be detained. And that, to me, is the most obvious way to not encourage illegal migration, is everyone’s held until they have a hearing,” said John R. Modlin, chief patrol agent in the Tucson sector. “You need to detain people until a hearing.”

Dustin Caudle, deputy chief patrol agent in the Yuma sector, said “word spread very quickly” when his region began to send migrants directly to the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the detention agency, instead of quickly releasing them.

“A lot of that flow, a lot of that traffic that was coming to Yuma sector has now been displaced to other surrounding sectors, and so it just became an undesirable crossing location because of the consequence impacts that we had leveraged,” he said.

“So consequences work?” one committee interviewer asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Chief Caudle replied.

The Biden administration has mostly slashed detention populations and urged Congress to cut the department’s bed space from 34,000 slots daily to 25,000. Only in recent months has the administration reversed course and increased detention.

Even then, that was only for adults. The Biden administration shuttered the family facilities opened during the Obama administration, meaning the 40% of migrants who enter as families can’t be detained beyond a few days.

The agents sang the praises of the border wall after more than 450 miles of barrier were erected during the Trump administration.

In particular, they said, the wall helped shut down vehicle incursions and shape where migrants on foot were crossing, giving agents a better chance to respond.

“It allows me to concentrate the manpower on a daily assignment more accurately, and that is the whole intent of the border wall system,” Chief Caudle said.

Testifying last year, he said the Biden administration’s halt to border wall construction left gaps, only some of which had been plugged, and shut down construction on the cameras, lighting and sensors that detect incursions.

“All of those things were meant to be part of the border wall system, and all of those projects were stopped and are in various stages of completion even today,” he testified in September.

Four chiefs specifically said they would like more border wall to be constructed in their sectors.

Mr. Mayorkas has consistently downplayed the value of a wall.

In 2021, he told senators that the money the previous administration spent on the wall was a “waste.”

“The border wall in many respects was not the most effective use of taxpayer dollars to secure the border,” he said in testimony.

A year later, he repeated that stance: “The commitment of this administration is not to continue to build the wall.”

He declared again in October that more border wall “is not the answer.”

President Biden also flatly rejected the idea that walls work when asked about it in October.

“No,” he told reporters.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Mayorkas have repeatedly urged Congress to revoke money already budgeted for wall construction, but Capitol Hill has rebuffed those demands. Indeed, because of a Trump-era spending law, the administration announced in the fall that it would grudgingly restart some wall construction.

If the administration refused the restart, it would have violated the law and given significant fuel to Republicans’ argument to impeach Mr. Mayorkas.

In response to questions for this report, the Homeland Security Department said it is focusing on manpower and technology and “barriers where appropriate.” That includes closing what the department called “gaps” and unbuilt gates.

The department pointed The Times to parts of the sector chiefs’ testimony where they said they could use more manpower and technology, such as surveillance towers.

The chiefs did not dismiss the importance of the wall.

Among other revelations from the committees’ report:

• Agents expressed worry over the changing demographics at the border. The once predominantly Mexican single adult migrant population has given way to what they called “nontraditional migrants.” In Arizona, agents were seeing Indians, Chinese, Senegalese and Mauritanians.

It’s one thing when they surrender to agents with hopes for a quick catch-and-release. Agents may have some chance to conduct an interview or run their identities through databases. Those who evade agents have no such chance.

“You just don’t know who they are, where they come from, what their intent is, what they’re bringing with them,” Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens said. “And it could range from very minimal to very severe. We just don’t know.”

• One sector chief said the smuggling cartels that operate on the other side of his jurisdiction collect more than $30 million a week just from smuggling people. That area, the Del Rio sector, accounted for about 20% of the Border Patrol’s apprehensions last year.

Another chief said the smugglers adapt their prices based on how and where migrants enter. Aaron Heitke, who was chief patrol agent in the San Diego sector at the time he testified, said migrants even pay based on their chances of success.

“It costs more to go through an area that has a better chance of getting away,” he said.

In San Diego, he said, migrants were paying $12,000 to $20,000 to be boated into the U.S. along the coast and $8,000 to $12,000 to cross by land. Migrants sometimes get a bulk discount. He said those in groups of 200 or 300 can pay just $400 or $500 per person.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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