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Immigration System Is At 'Breaking Point,' Homeland Security Warns


The United States caught so many people at the border this week that the Department of Homeland Security says it hardly knows what to do. Officials spoke after two extraordinary days of apprehensions. Now, the annual flow of migrants to the United States remains well-below historic highs, but it's been rising. And on these two days, federal agents apprehended more than 4,000 people crossing without authorization, the highest daily totals in 15 years. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan says it's part of a busy month.


KEVIN MCALEENAN: With 55,000 families, including 40,000 children, expected to enter the process this month, we are doing everything we can to simply avoid a tragedy in a CBP facility. But with these numbers, with the types of illnesses we're seeing at the border, I fear that it's just a matter of time.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Burnett is in San Antonio. And, John, we just heard a bunch of numbers which can fly past us. But how do they feel to the people dealing with them?

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Well, you know, I've covered immigration in the borderlands for a long time, and I've just never heard this kind of pessimism from officials before. I mean, I'm down here talking to a bunch of immigration bigwigs and, you know, they're talking about the unabated crisis - it's unsustainable, we're overwhelmed. You heard Commissioner Kevin McAleenan say the breaking point arrived this week and that those numbers, they're jaw-dropping. You know? They're on track to arrest 100,000 people this month. And an in-house forecast is that if this trend continues, it could be as many as 150,000 arrests a month, for the next three months.

INSKEEP: When he referred to the possibility of a tragedy in a CBP facility, what is the practical problem he's outlining there?

BURNETT: Steve, they're running out of space in Border Patrol stations up and down the border. Just in El Paso, the Border Patrol station is 2 1/2 times over capacity. We saw pictures. They're locking immigrants in a holding pen under a highway bridge while they wait for processing. And we also learned the Border Patrol is ready to release thousands of immigrants directly to these church-run shelters in the communities, and if they don't have room then they'll be released onto the streets. And what's unusual about this is that ICE, Immigration Customs Enforcement, is the agency that's supposed to decide whether to release immigrants, not the Border Patrol.

INSKEEP: But they're deciding to release them and - because of this fear of a tragedy? What does that mean? That because there's so many children, they wouldn't be taken care of? Somebody could die in custody?

BURNETT: Well, of course, they don't want to keep them in these spartan conditions for, you know, more than a couple of days. And so if there's a backup with ICE processing then the Border Patrol is going to - is going to turn them loose themselves.

INSKEEP: Is there any way that help can be sent here?

BURNETT: Right. We know that 750 agents are being reassigned from ports of entry to help these overtaxed Border Patrol officers. They've shut down five highway checkpoints around El Paso to redeploy those agents. I've never seen that happen before. And, of course, the government is complaining with fewer agents at the ports and at the highway checkpoints it leaves the country more vulnerable to drug and human smugglers.

And I'll mention one more. The Border Patrol has now gone once again to the Pentagon to ask for assistance. And active duty troops have been stringing concertina wire, and they're not supposed to deal directly with immigrants. Now the Border Patrol is saying, look, we need hands-on help to process these immigrants, to take them to hospitals and so, you know, we need your soldiers to help us.

INSKEEP: So people are being taken away from frontline enforcement to do this processing on the back end. John, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

BURNETT: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.