How the surge impacts border patrol operations

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Border Patrol operations. As you just heard, migrant arrivals at the border are spiking.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And joining us now with another first-hand perspective of what’s happening at the southern border is Deputy Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol Raul Ortiz. 

Thank you for joining us today.

ORTIZ: Well, thank you for having me. 

REICHARD: Deputy Chief Ortiz, you’ve been with the U.S. Border Patrol for almost 30 years. How has the job of border patrol agents changed over the years and specifically, how has it changed in the past few years with surges in  unaccompanied minors?  

ORTIZ: Well, yeah, thank you. I have been with this organization for 30 years. And I can tell you the demographics and certainly the border security mission has changed considerably. When I started out in San Diego, California, most of the traffic that we saw were single adults and they were from Mexico. What we’ve experienced really, I think, over the last probably seven or eight years has been a shift. We’ve seen more nationals from Central America, family units and unaccompanied children. So, historically, most of our traffic, we were able to repatriate back to Mexico.

Now, when you’re apprehending folks from Central America and really all over the world—on last count I think we’ve already apprehended folks from 128 different countries. Last year it was in the neighborhood of 150 different countries. And so there’s an awful lot of coordination to repatriate somebody if they’re from Western Africa or Haiti or Cuba and whatnot, and then, of course, this year we’re starting to see another uptick in unaccompanied children. Very similar to what we saw in 2014.

REICHARD: When we hear about spikes in migrants trying to cross the border it’s always important to put that number into context. In February, 100,000 migrants arrived at the border. Of those, 9,000 were unaccompanied minors. And 19,000 were families. How do those numbers compare to past surges? 

ORTIZ: Yeah, so when you look at 2020, we had 29,000 UAC encounters. We’ve already surpassed that in the first four or five months of this fiscal year. And that’s going to continue to increase because traditionally our high traffic months are April, May, and June. And so we’re starting to see a lot more Central Americans cross, Guatemalans. And then increases in folks from Ecuador, Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, and so those create some challenges for us. 

REICHARD: When you said UAC, you mean Unaccompanied Alien Children? 

ORTIZ: Yeah, that’s correct. Sorry. Unaccompanied Alien Children. And what we’re seeing unaccompanied children and our facilities overcrowded is sort of the first step in this coordination process. We’re mandated to turn over any unaccompanied children to Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. And what they end up doing is either placing that kid with a sponsor, a guardian, or a relative or a parent or into a shelter facility. So our mandate is to transfer custody of those individuals as quickly as possible.

REICHARD: In the past we’ve seen large groups of people trying to cross the border, caravans of people. And that’s caused big spikes. Is this happening now?  Are these people who’ve been waiting along the border during the past year? 

ORTIZ: I think it’s a combination of both. I think what we’re experiencing now are, one, a lot of folks that were  probably staged either in Mexico or another country and then I think you also find that people see an opportunity and they’re taking advantage of it right now. Our officers are stretched awfully, awfully thin. Both to be able to manage in between the ports of entry and then deal with this migrant population that we have to care, transport, feed, and have services for, I think it really has created, I think, some gaps along the southwest border. And so the cartels, plaza bosses, I think are encouraging these migrant populations to come northbound.

REICHARD: We have heard from law enforcement in border counties that it’s not unusual to find human remains in the vast distances between border ports of entry on ranches and in mountains, not to mention the danger of trying to cross the currents of the Rio Grande. What do you think the average American is unaware of with regard to the human toll at the border? 

ORTIZ: Well, I think there’s a couple of things. One, that we certainly have an immigration system that needs to be adjusted. When you have parents that are making a conscious decision to allow their tender age children, like a child who’s five or six or seven years old, to travel through multiple countries to get to our doorstep with somebody who they don’t know or could be a neighbor or a distant family member or just a smuggler in general, you’re really putting that child at risk. And so I think we have to be concerned that we’ve got a very vulnerable population out there and we’ve got to do everything we can to safeguard those children. The second thing I think the rest of America doesn’t understand is that we’re at a point now where we’re stretching our resources awfully, awfully thin. And I’m not just talking about the border patrol resources. I’m talking about the government resources as a whole. And so I think people forget about 9/11. People forget about some of those other threats. And so, as I mentioned, we apprehend people from 130, 140 different countries. We don’t know, just because they don’t have a criminal record in the U.S., we don’t know what they’ve done in other countries and what they’re coming to the U.S. to do. And so those are concerns that — those are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.

REICHARD: Much work to do. U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz, thank you for your time today. 

ORTIZ: Thank you.

(AP Photo/Christian Chavez) A US Customs and Border Protection helicopter flies over older metal fencing dividing Ciudad Juarez, Mexico from Sunland Park, New Mexico, in an area where workers have begun laying the foundations to build a new steel wall, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. 

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