For the benefit of all the attendees and members of the press, the Department has released the Acting Secretary’s remarks as prepared.
Acting Secretary McAleenan’s Migration Policy Institute Prepared Remarks:
Good morning, everyone.
I want to thank the Migration Policy Institute, Georgetown University Law Center, and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. for the opportunity to join you.
While there are many areas within the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration responsibilities that might interest this audience, including the over 750,000 new citizens naturalized last year, or recent regulatory changes, I will focus today on our ongoing efforts to confront irregular migration flows, address the ongoing border crisis, and improve the integrity of the immigration system.
I would like to try and take our dialogue this morning above the politics and the daily news cycle, and talk about the challenges and our efforts to address them over the past year… but also, given that this is an audience of immigration lawyers, advocates, and law students, to talk about some of the fundamental issues we face with the current legal framework and its ability to address large scale migration flows.
Earlier this year, we faced an acute and deepening crisis at our Southern Border. At its peak in May, we faced an extraordinarily challenging situation, with overcrowding in border facilities, and continued daily arrivals of almost 5,000 migrants, primarily families and children from Central America. This point is critical, as our immigration laws work fairly well when addressing single adults from contiguous or regional countries. But for families and children, we lacked effective tools to counter the smugglers and their messages, resulting in unprecedented flows of these most vulnerable migrants making the journey to our border, and we lacked funding from Congress to promptly alleviate the humanitarian crisis the volume of arrivals caused.
Rundown of Crisis
To give you a sense of the enormous scale of the crisis that our Department’s workforce has been confronted with this year—in May, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended or encountered over 144,000 migrants at our Southwest Border—90% of whom crossed illegally between ports of entry.
This was a modern record, and included a day of over 5,800 border crossings in a single 24-hour period. It also included the largest single group ever apprehended: 1,036 migrants crossing together en masse in the El Paso sector.
Of our record apprehensions that month, 72% were of unaccompanied children and family units. Many of these migrants represented Central America’s most vulnerable populations, who put their lives and those of their families in the hands of smugglers.
Despite the obvious dangers of the journey, smugglers have adapted their craft to exploit the weaknesses in our immigration system. Their operations are highly sophisticated—with calculated planning on when and where to cross our borders.
With the overwhelming number of arrivals, DHS facilities at the border were overcrowded, resulting in very difficult humanitarian conditions. In some sectors, 50% of our agents were redirected to processing and care for migrants, leaving key areas of the border undermanned and necessitating the closing of checkpoints.
While we had warned of the burgeoning crisis since December, and requested both additional humanitarian resources and legislative changes, Congressional action was not responsive and the crisis spiraled.
There are a number of reasons for the fundamental shifts in migration patterns, but at the core, the push factors for migration are predicated on a stark economic opportunity gap, exacerbated by poverty and food insecurity, with continued high-levels of violence in some areas of Central America.
Job creation has not been able to keep up with labor growth in Central America resulting in a stark opportunity shortage—with only 1/5th of the needed jobs being created every year for the number of young people entering the workforce in the Northern Triangle. This is the single most important push factor.
Poverty and food insecurity are also key contributors. 64% of Hondurans live below the poverty line with rural poverty being more severe and 63% of Central American migrants cite lack of food as a primary incentive for migration according to the UN World Food Program.
Over the past decade, transnational criminal organizations have used the Central American corridor for a range of illicit activities, including trafficking a significant percentage of cocaine bound for the United States. As a result, while the security situation is improving impressively in all three of the main sending countries, the region has experienced elevated homicide rates and general crime committed by drug traffickers, gangs, and other criminal groups.
Combined, these factors have created conditions that push many to make the dangerous trek north.
Pull factors, however, are even more significant. The strength of the U.S. economy, with historically low levels of unemployment, and the presence of significant diasporas of Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans, with resources, are strong magnets.
But the main cause of the increases in arrivals this year, as in the past two surges, is the weakness in the US immigration system, the vulnerabilities of our legal framework, which allowed migrants—especially families and unaccompanied children–to stay in the US for months or years, even though a substantial majority are unlikely to ultimately receive legal status.
That is why, by the end of the fiscal year, we will see numbers more than triple the record for family units arriving at the border, with over 500,000, and record number of unaccompanied minors.
I want to be clear on this point, the central factor that has driven the migration crisis this year has been the inability to achieve results from the immigration process that can be effectuated at the border for these demographics, at or near the time the migrants arrive.
Those of you working in the legal system for immigration see this. We have massive backlogs in both the immigration courts and the asylum system. Before we implemented new programs and partnerships this year, thousands of migrants were released into the United States to await court hearings, adding to the backlog, and incentivizing more attempts. Too many fail to show up for court proceedings scheduled years away, and those given final orders in person rarely report for removal proceedings.
If we are unable to achieve fair and expeditious immigration results, with due process, and effectively repatriate those without valid claims to remain in the U.S., more will pay smugglers and make the journey and crisis levels of arrivals will continue.
In response to these multi-faceted challenges, we developed an aggressive and holistic strategy to mitigate the crisis within existing law.
The strategy sought to change the dynamic at the border by…
ONE, disrupting smuggling activity and reducing the unprecedented flow.
TWO, changing the way we process that flow to create greater integrity in the system by achieving immigration results that can be effectuated at the border without release into the United States.
And THREE, to urgently mitigate the humanitarian situation by providing enhanced care for arriving migrants once they crossed into the United States.
Reduce the Flow
To reduce the flow, we realized that international partnerships were going to be essential.
We worked to develop operational and strategic partnerships in the region based on shared responsibility for the migrant crisis.
Principally, this has meant partnering with the government of Mexico, to increase security of their border and prevent transnational criminal organizations from preying on migrants transiting north, and to reduce irregular and unlawful migration;
Second, it has meant building relationships and capacity with law enforcement, immigration, and diplomatic authorities in the main source countries for migration to our border, Guatemala and Honduras, and El Salvador to address the root causes of migration, from security, economic, and governance perspectives.
In terms of the reduction in flow through interdiction and disruption, the single biggest factor has been the efforts of the government of Mexico.
This has included the deployment of nearly 25,000 troops under the new Mexican National Guard; a focus on increased presence along the Chiapas-Guatemala border; stopping the conveyer belt of large groups to the U.S. border; disruption of key transportation hubs, and, importantly, a dramatic rise in human smuggling arrests and prosecutions.
The increase in human smuggling prosecutions has not been confined to just Mexico. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have all increased human smuggling arrests and prosecutions in the last three months.
Guatemala has greatly increased its police presence at its northern border with Mexico, and has adopted new techniques and technology to identify fraudulent documents and disrupt human smuggling networks. DHS has more than 45 personnel supporting the Guatemalan government’s border operations.
El Salvador recently deployed 800 police and 300 immigration agents to patrol areas along its borders where migrant smugglers and transnational criminals operate, and arrested dozens of known human smugglers and traffickers.
In addition to these enforcement efforts, several countries have agreed to partner with the United States on increasing asylum capacity in the region. Recognizing these countries’ decision to join the UN’s comprehensive refugee response framework (or MIRPS), and using best practices by international organizations and the United States, these bilateral agreements will enhance collaboration and build protection capacity.
To that end, the United States will be providing $47 million in aid through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration to build asylum capacity in Guatemala.
The goal is to build the shared capacity to extend asylum protections in partner countries in the region and ensure that those who need protections from persecution for political, racial, religious, or social group membership can seek them as close to home as possible, without putting themselves or their family in the hands of dangerous smugglers.
Our partnerships are also having impact at our border: working with both Mexico and all three Central American partners, we have initiated or expanded programs that are resulting in more effective immigration results for arrivals at the US border as well.
Expeditiously Removing Migrants
Perhaps the most visible program resulting from our energized international efforts has been the Migrant Protection Protocols—or MPP—established with Mexico earlier this fiscal year. Under MPP, eligible migrants crossing illegally or presenting without documents at Ports of Entry, are processed for expedited court hearings and returned to Mexico. They are then allowed access through US ports of entry on hearing dates.
MPP enhances the integrity of the system, by getting immigration court results at much faster pace than the non-detained docket in the U.S., while keeping families together, and, without keeping them in custody. It is expressly provided for in law, and conducted in partnership with Mexico, who has committed to appropriate humanitarian protections and work authorization in Mexico for migrants in the adjudication process.
Under MPP, we have successfully provided protections to hundreds of asylum seekers—including those unique asylees to whom protection is provided immediately, if it is deemed too dangerous from fear screenings to return them to Mexico, as well as several who were found by immigration judges to have meritorious claims at the end of the expedited process in the only the first several months of operation.
MPP serves as a tool to provide expeditious access and decisions for meritorious claims, and to discourage individuals with inadequate or false asylum claims from illegally entering the United States. Previously, the system had requited release into the interior for a court date that could be 5 years or more down the road.
This key change has led to a safer and more orderly process along the Southwest Border—and we are grateful for Mexico’s cooperation with us in this effort.
We have also worked with partner governments to streamline information sharing, to support repatriation, and joint identification of security or criminal threats.
Along with these efforts, we are also implementing new regulations designed to limit asylum abuse while preserving our critical commitments under US law and international agreements, as well as promulgating stringent requirements for care and custody conditions for minors in federal holding, but we still believe that key legislative fixes are necessary for a durable and comprehensive solution to the crisis.
Combined, however, the international efforts, and our initiatives at the border to enhance immigration results, are making an impact.
Daily arrivals are down 65% from the peak in May, and total enforcement actions for Central Americans arriving at the border have been reduced by well over 70%.
Improved Care of Migrants in Custody
I would like to highlight one more area of progress, perhaps the most fundamental when looking at the responsibilities of the Federal government to those in our custody, and that has been in the area of our efforts to enhance care and conditions, alleviate overcrowding in border facilities, provide access to showers and toiletries, hot meals, medical screening and care, and sufficient transportation to ensure movement to more appropriate settings on a timely basis.
Since receiving the emergency supplemental funding requested on May 1st in late June, DHS has: Added over 5,000 beds in temporary facilities, providing a more appropriate setting for families and children, and eliminating overcrowding of single adults;
HHS has been able to add necessary capacity for unaccompanied children on demand as well;
Ensured access to showers at major stations and dramatically increased accessibility of hot meals and age-appropriate meals;
Since January, DHS has also: Increased the presence of certified medical professionals in border stations and POEs from approximately 20, to 200, and provided policy direction to ensure all children are screened, while dramatically enhancing transportation capacity;
As a result of all of these efforts, from a high of almost 20,000 total in custody at the border, we now average 3,500-4,500, and the number of unaccompanied children has been reduced from over 2,700 to fewer than 150. Times in custody at border stations have also been reduced dramatically, with children moving to well-equipped HHS facilities in less than 24 hours. In sum, we have a much better situation at the border stations for migrants, thanks to the emergency funding we sought and obtained from Congress.
The efforts and actions we have taken the past 6 months have been focused on mitigating the crisis—to protect vulnerable populations in the region and restore integrity to our immigration system for border arrivals.
At the same time, we can’t let our progress distract from the fact that we remain at crisis levels in illegal crossings at the Southwest Border,
1500-2000 arrivals a day, with hundreds dying on the journey each year, is not an acceptable situation, not only in terms of the dangers in the crossing for the migrants, and the impact to our security missions, but also in terms of the regional impact. We must continue to build sustainable solutions.
In closing, I am privileged to work alongside the Department’s extraordinary workforce, and I can tell you that this crisis and the coverage of it, have fallen heavily on them. They have fought to maintain security at the border, strengthen integrity of the system, and with innovation and heart, care for vulnerable populations. I am proud of the job they have done with heart and compassion in very trying circumstances. They deserve our support and thanks.
Going forward, we need a higher-minded dialogue on immigration. In our media, in Congress, and with legal experts. This year marked the third crisis surge in 5 years. We have taken key actions to address it, but durable solutions depend on Congressional action to address the weaknesses in our laws that have incentivized these unprecedented flows.
More broadly, migration crises cannot be addressed by any destination country alone. We must create a sense of shared responsibility–and build the reality of effective capability and institutional capacity–with our partners in the region, or our progress will not be sustainable.
Thank you for the opportunity to engage this morning—I look forward to the rest of our dialogue.
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