July 3, 2019 / 5:51 PM / 19 days ago

An ever-expanding job for border agents: sensitive decisions on migrants' fates

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - In a U.S. border patrol facility in El Paso, Texas, labels on holding cells indicate whether migrants have been selected - “yes” or “no” - for a new Trump administration program that sends asylum seekers to wait out their U.S. court hearings in Mexico.

Democratic Congresswoman Nanette Barragan, who saw the signs on Monday during a tour of the station, said a cell labeled yes was filled; there was nobody in a cell labeled no.

    Such determinations, highly important in the lives of migrants who may face violence across the border, are made on a daily basis by frontline uniformed officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

    Under new Trump administration policies, CBP officers increasingly are tasked with making sensitive decisions about the fate of migrants even as they struggle with the pressures of increased arrivals and heightened - and sometimes highly critical - public scrutiny.

Tensions boiled over this week, as visiting legislators including Barragan and U.S. Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez publicly denounced the conditions and practices in Texas border patrol detention facilities.

“I have never been a supporter of having CBP agents be the judge and jury for these migrants,” Barragan said in an interview, referring to the decisions on who will wait in Mexico under the new Trump administration policy known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). “The same people are apprehending them and judging whether they are eligible for a program.”

Adding to critics’ concerns about officers’ sensitivity, the investigative news organization ProPublica reported Monday that a private Facebook group for current and former officers mocked migrant deaths and posted other derogatory comments.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, ordered an investigation into the group and said the social media activity was “disturbing & inexcusable.”

Some former CPB officials questioned the weight of responsibility placed on employees’ shoulders amid a growing crisis at the southwest border.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former policy advisor in CBP’s office of the commissioner said CBP officers and border agents are primarily law enforcement personnel. “Why are we asking border patrol to do more?” she said, adding that the strains on the agency are lowering morale. “This is not what they signed up for.”

Border apprehensions topped 132,000 in May, their highest levels in more than a decade, but declined last month as Mexico cracks down people heading north through their country.

Changing demographics are stretching resources. Instead of mostly single Mexican men trying to evade capture, officers are increasingly dealing with a surging number of Central American families - many with very young children - turning themselves in to seek asylum in the United States.

FILE PHOTO: Men are crowded in a room at a Border Patrol station in a still image from video in McAllen, Texas, U.S. on June 10, 2019 and released as part of a report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General on July 2, 2019. Picture pixelated at source. Office of Inspector General/DHS/Handout via REUTERS./File Photo

CBP said in a statement that the El Paso sector, where lawmakers visited this week, has seen a massive increase in apprehensions and that facilities there “were not designed for long-term holding.” Officers are facing “critical challenges” moving migrants out of border patrol custody quickly, the agency said.

Some Border Patrol officers complain their duties increasingly fall outside the bounds of their training – like tending to sick children and adults in their custody.

“People are coming in unvaccinated, there are outbreaks of mumps, flu, measles, we have had flesh eating bacteria, all these various strains of diseases,” which is putting agents themselves at risk, said Joshua Wilson, a spokesman for the San Diego border patrol union.

HIGH-STAKES DECISIONS

In late January, the Trump administration began implementing the controversial MPP program in which asylum applicants can be forced to wait for their U.S. court hearings in Mexico.

As of the end of June, 16,714 migrants had been sent back to Mexico under the MPP program, according to Mexican government data, often to border cities where crime rates are high and local officials say they don’t have the capacity to handle the influx. The program is expected to be extended across the entire southwest border.

Unaccompanied minors, Mexicans and people with known physical or mental health issues are supposed to be exempt. Migrants who express fear of staying in Mexico are referred to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officer who decides if they can be taken out of the program and allowed to wait in the United States. But many do not know they can make such a claim and success is rare.

Some border patrol officers also are beginning to have increased authority in a separate, high-stakes decision-making process for asylum seekers.

Migrants who are allowed to stay in the United States to pursue their asylum claims are supposed to first go through a “credible fear” screening process, to determine whether their concerns about threats in their home countries are believable.

Typically that interview is conducted by specially trained USCIS asylum officers. If they pass, they can go on to fight their case in U.S. immigration court.

Under a new pilot program, 35 U.S. border patrol officers have been trained to conduct those “credible fear” interviews as well, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of USCIS told reporters last week. He said early signs from the pilot were “positive” and that officers who have conducted the interviews - under the supervision of senior asylum officers - were handling them “capably.”

Cuccinelli said the credible fear training the officers were receiving was more extensive and thorough than any other training border patrol officers have received in their careers, including active shooter drills.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Border Patrol agents are seen at the U.S.-Mexico border in Mission, Texas, U.S., July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo

Still, it adds to the crush of other duties agents and officers handle.

“Right now we are at a critical breaking point,” said Wilson from the border patrol union.

Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson

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