(AP) — The Trump administration said Wednesday that it will temporarily reassign 750 border inspectors to address a growing number of migrants arriving at the Mexican border, many of them Central American families who turn themselves in to authorities and seek asylum.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said the change will mean longer waits at border crossings as the busy Easter holiday nears but that it was necessary to address what he called “an operational crisis.” The reassigned officers will process migrants, provide transportation and perform hospital watches for migrants who require medical attention. It is unknown when they will return to their regular duties.
“There will be impacts to traffic at the border,” McAleenan said at a news conference in El Paso, Texas, which, after years of relative calm, has quickly emerged as the second-busiest corridor for illegal crossings after Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. “There will be a slowdown in the processing of trade. There will be wait times in our pedestrian and passenger vehicle lanes.”
Arrests on Mexican border jumped to 66,450 in February, up 149 percent from a year earlier, while arrests in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which stretches across New Mexico and much of West Texas, were about eight times higher than they were a year ago.
March is shaping up to be even busier. McAleenan said the agency was on track to make 100,000 arrests or denials of entry during the month, up about 30 percent from in February and about double the same period last year. About 55,000 will have arrived as families, including 40,000 children.
The commissioner said the border was at “a breaking point,” language that is consistent with the administration’s portrayal of a state of crisis. President Donald Trump last month declared a national emergency on the border to obtain military funds for construction of his prized border wall.
While arrests are still well below highs of the early 2000s, the surge of families and children has tested U.S. authorities.
Customs and Border Protection is taking more than 60 migrants to the hospital each day, McAleenan said. In the previous four days, he said infants have had 105-degree fevers, a 2-year-old suffered seizures in the desert and a 40-year-old man suffering organ failure refused surgery.
The 750 border inspectors will be drawn from offices across the entire U.S. border including California and Arizona, states outside the El Paso sector.
The reassignment of border inspectors follows the Border Patrol’s unusual move to close all highway checkpoints in its El Paso sector, which stretches across 268 miles (429 kilometers) of border in Texas and New Mexico.
U.S. officials say the checkpoint closures are a temporary measure to handle an increase in families and unaccompanied children entering the country illegally.
The orange traffic cones used to divert traffic off Interstate 10 into the canopy-covered border checkpoints west of Las Cruces, New Mexico, now block the entrance, signaling to drivers that they don’t have to stop.
The Border Patrol operates 34 permanent checkpoints along the entire Mexican border — typically brick-and-mortar buildings with canopies over vehicle lanes — and another 103 “tactical” stops, often cones and signs that appear for brief periods, the Government Accountability Office said in a 2017 report.
While checkpoints account for only a sliver of Border Patrol arrests — 2 percent from 2013 to 2016 — they also handled 43 percent of drug busts during that time, according to the GAO.
At a gun range operated by the City of Las Cruces and used by Border Patrol agents, grandmother and Pichacho Gun Club volunteer Cindy Pollock said she first noticed the checkpoint closures on Thursday.
She thought the agents might be off training. When she heard that they were reassigned to process migrants, she wasn’t surprised.
“There’s only so many officers and there’s nothing they can do,” said Pollock, who believes the current wave of migrants draws resources away from anti-crime efforts. “My husband said ‘Boy, just think about how many drugs are getting through today.'”