A U.S. official on Wednesday said the nation would "lose control" of its border with Mexico unless a massive and protracted surge of undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers, primarily from Central America, is contained and reversed.
U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost issued the warning to a Senate panel while announcing an eye-popping number of migrant apprehensions: 460,294 so far in the current fiscal year, which began in October. That figure exceeds the yearly total recorded by Border Patrol in more than a decade.
Provost noted that, unlike in previous major migration periods, children, unaccompanied minors and family units constitute a substantial proportion of those reaching the U.S.-Mexico border, placing huge and unprecedented burdens on federal agencies.
"I could never have envisioned that, today, agents would spend at least 40% of their time as child care providers, medical caregivers, bus drivers and food service workers," Provost told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on border security and immigration. "Every agent that I pull off the line to process and care for families and children increases the risk that illegal border crossers will get past us, including those smuggling drugs and other contraband."
Border security 'at risk'
She added, "Simply put, we have been forced to put our border security and our national security at risk" and that, unless migration is deterred, "we will lose control of the border."
Provost's warning was echoed by the subcommittee's chairman, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
"This is an emergency situation," Cornyn said. "This problem will only continue to grow without our intervention."
Cornyn urged congressional passage of the Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency (HUMANE) Act, which he introduced with Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas. The bill seeks to improve care for children and families intercepted at the border, streamline and expedite the processing of migrants, boost border resources and modernize America's ports of entry.
"I urge my colleagues to work with us to try to solve this problem. We need to quit looking at this through a political lens," Cornyn said.
Democrats on the panel argued it is President Donald Trump who has used immigration as a political weapon. They accused the Trump administration of making a difficult situation worse through a series of decisions, from implementing a "zero tolerance" policy for undocumented immigrants to separating migrant children from their parents to cutting off U.S. aid to Central America.
"Let's not forget that, earlier this year, the president forced the longest government shutdown in history in an effort to get Congress to pay for a [border] wall that Mexico was supposed to build," Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said. "The Trump shutdown paralyzed immigration courts … and added to the backlog of cases."
Durbin added, "The reality is, the Trump administration's policies have made our borders less secure, and many times undermined our American values. When the president threatens to shut down the border, it's like a neon sign that smugglers and others use to encourage desperate families to flee [to the United States] as quickly as possible."
Funding and resources
Lawmakers of both parties have said they recognize the need for additional funding and resources for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which cares for unaccompanied migrant children.
Beyond funding, Department of Homeland Security officials urged Congress to revamp U.S. immigration laws to speed the repatriation of migrants whose asylum claims are denied.
DHS Acting Executive Associate Director Nathalie Asher argued that current laws are "creating an enormous pull factor" that attracts more migrants.
"ICE must have the necessary authorities to ensure the safe, successful repatriation of persons who have had their day in court and been ordered removed in accordance with our immigration laws," Asher said. "Without the necessary funding and legislative changes, the integrity of our immigration system will continue to be undermined."
Congress last attempted a major overhaul of U.S. immigration laws in 2013, when a major reform bill was approved by the then-Democrat-controlled Senate. The then-Republican-led House of Representatives never took up the legislation, and it failed to pass Congress.
Provost argued that Washington's inaction on immigration reform is well understood beyond America's borders, adding that smugglers are "banking" on it.