Editor’s Note: Carla L. Provost has served as the chief of the US Border Patrol, located in Washington DC, since August of 2018, and will be retiring at the end of this month. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Baling wire and duct tape.
There is an old saying in the Border Patrol that with these tools, an agent can fix just about anything. We patrol rugged and remote areas, and we have long relied on our own ingenuity to communicate, fix equipment and even build early versions of border barriers and technology. But Border Patrol ingenuity alone cannot address the border security and humanitarian crisis we’ve been facing this past year.
I joined the Border Patrol 25 years ago because of my strong belief in our border security mission. Our mission is to address all threats at our border, to stop everyone and everything from crossing between authorized points of entry. The threat of transnational criminal organizations is ever-present as they smuggle drugs, weapons, cash and people in support of their criminal enterprises. Through generations of experience, Border Patrol developed a set of tools to address cross-border illegal activity: technology to give us awareness of illegal activity, physical barriers to slow or stop it and agents to respond and make an arrest. In my 25-year career, I’ve personally seen these tools deliver true border security results in places like Douglas and Yuma, Arizona and El Paso, Texas.
Without a doubt, the current crisis has been unlike anything Border Patrol has faced in our 95-year history. Last fiscal year, agents apprehended more than 850,000 people along the southern border. For the first time in our history, 321,000 of those apprehensions were children. Smuggling organizations profited from illegal immigration like never before, leveraging our outdated immigration system to advertise “bring a child and you will be released.”
Smugglers marketed new express bus routes that would deliver families directly from Central America to the US border. Last year, agents encountered 213 large groups of more than 100 people; in 2017, we encountered only two such groups. On one occasion, more than 1,000 adults and children crossed the border at one time. Our operations were overwhelmed on a daily basis.
The US Border Patrol is just the first step in America’s criminal justice and immigration systems. Agents process anyone we encounter illegally crossing our borders to determine who they are and why they are here. We hand their cases over to other agencies which prosecute criminal violations or determine eligibility to remain in the US.
The Border Patrol relies heavily on our partner agencies to quickly accept custody of individuals within hours or days after they cross the border. Last spring, when apprehensions skyrocketed, CBP and our partners asked Congress for emergency funding because they could not keep up. Unaccompanied children, who by law can only be transferred to US Department of Health and Human Services, were left in limbo when our partners ran out of shelter space. More people were coming into our custody than going out, and people remained in overcrowded Border Patrol stations far too long. We rapidly put up temporary facilities, expanded medical support, and purchased humanitarian supplies like food, hygiene products, portable sinks and shower and laundry trailers, but the volume of apprehensions increased daily and we, too, began to run out of operating funds.
My agents took on humanitarian duties with compassion and heroism through actions like caring for a child or performing lifesaving CPR on a teen pulled from the river. Border Patrol agents often risked their own safety to rescue more than 4,900 people, many of whom were placed in perilous situations by smugglers. Tragically, too many vulnerable individuals fell ill or lost their lives on the dangerous journey or after crossing the US-Mexico border. Last fiscal year alone, agents accompanied more than 26,000 people to hospitals or medical facilities. At the peak of the crisis, my agents spent as much as 60% of their time processing, transporting, feeding and providing medical care to those we apprehended rather than patrolling and securing the border. Smugglers seized on that opportunity.
Even with fewer agents on the border, Border Patrol agents still seized 28% more methamphetamine, 42% more heroin and 78% more cocaine than the previous year. Agents arrested more than 9,000 criminals, gang members, or individuals with active wants and warrants. Most alarming, we detected more than 150,000 people who successfully evaded arrest – what we call “got aways.” I worry about what else we missed.
The current state of illegal immigration – and its impact on border security – is not sustainable. New initiatives have temporarily eased the flow of illegal immigration by effectively ending the release of migrants directly at the border. Southwest border apprehensions have dropped by 75% since May. However, we are heavily reliant on agreements with other countries to maintain this progress. Only Congress can tackle the tough task of updating our immigration laws and providing more resources to our partners in the immigration system, but they seem unwilling or unable to do so.
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Regrettably, it has become too tempting to blame the men and women of the Border Patrol for this crisis rather than help us address it. Instead of pointing fingers, I call upon all of us, as a nation, to resume civil debate about these critical issues. Border security is national security – this is not just an issue for border towns. Dangerous criminals and hard narcotics that successfully cross the border can make their way into all of our communities. We must protect our nation together.
While I can assure you that my men and women will find a way to get the job done, our nation’s border security should be stronger than baling wire and duct tape.