Border Patrol agents have been ordered to release dripping-wet illegal immigrants at the Rio Grande unless they actually see them climbing out of the river, creating what amounts to “an open border with Mexico,” the chief of the agents’ labor union told Congress in new testimony last week.
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, told the House Judiciary Committee that agents were given the orders verbally soon after President Obama laid out plans for limiting immigration enforcement in 2014.
“We have apprehended illegal aliens just north of the border who are still soaking wet from crossing the river. If they claim, as increasingly they are doing, that they have been here since January 1, 2014, we will process and then release them,” Mr. Judd said in written testimony following up on questions from a hearing earlier this year.
“They are still wet from the river and miles from any civilization and on their word alone we release them unless we physically saw them cross the river,” he said. “This policy de facto creates an open border with Mexico for any illegal alien who wants to claim that they were here before 2014.”
The Jan. 1, 2014, date is not set in law, but rather is part of President Obama’s enforcement priorities he laid out in November of that year, designed to carve most illegal immigrants out of any fear of deportation.
In memos requested by Mr. Obama, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said long-time illegal immigrants were to be given lower priority in favor of recent border-crossers, and those with gang ties or who have amassed serious criminal records in addition to their immigration violations.
Mr. Judd and other enforcement advocates say illegal immigrants have learned to game the system, automatically claiming they arrived before 2014. Agents say they’ve been told they have to take illegal immigrants’ word for it.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security branch that oversees the Border Patrol, denied any such order had been given.
“The U.S. Border Patrol has not issued any stand-down order to agents,” the agency said in a statement to The Washington Times. “The Border Patrol’s enforcement posture and operation is the same as it was in 2014 and 2015, agents are issuing Notices to Appear consistent with law, regulation, and enforcement priorities.”
Mr. Judd and CBP have engaged in a fierce war of words this year, with the union chief in his initial testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in February saying that the Obama administration has re-started the maligned “catch-and-release” policy of the previous decade for illegal immigrants.
Mr. Judd said the administration was embarrassed by the large number of illegal immigrants caught at the border, so the government ordered the releases.
CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, in his own testimony to Congress a month later, said the NBPC was “probably not the most knowledgeable organization about what’s actually going on.” He said Mr. Judd and fellow agents who objected to Mr. Obama’s policies should look for new jobs.
Mr. Judd says that under the verbal directions, agents have been told to fingerprint illegal immigrants and process them to see if they have serious criminal records. But those that claim to have been here since 2013, and who don’t show up with problems in their criminal history, are released into the U.S. rather than held for deportation.
Both interior and border agents report that illegal immigrants, coached by smugglers, have quickly learned the new priorities and know the right words to use to avoid stricter scrutiny.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and Judiciary Committee Chairman, said that’s led to more illegal immigrants trying to make the trip into the U.S.
“Word has spread around the world about the administration’s lax immigration policies and now we see unlawful immigrants gaming the system and the administration’s so-called ‘enforcement priorities’ to come here,” said Mr. Goodlatte, whose committee received Mr. Judd’s testimony.
“President Obama must end his disastrous open border policies so that we can begin to restore integrity to our immigration system and secure the border,” the Virginian said.
The Jan. 1, 2014, cutoff date Mr. Obama and Mr. Johnson set for enforcement priorities has been controversial from the start.
Illegal immigrants already in the pipeline for deportation were told they could have their cases dropped if they met the new cutoff and didn’t have serious criminal records.
But Hispanic rights groups said it left out many illegal immigrant children and families who fled Central America that summer, and who the advocates say should be treated as refugees.
On the other side of the debate, meanwhile, enforcement advocates call the date “arbitrary” and say it’s forced agents to turn loose those who should have been sent back home.