- The Washington Times - Monday, February 8, 2021

Border Patrol agents are being overwhelmed with a surge of migrants in parts of Texas and have had to restart “catch-and-release” policies, turning people loose into the U.S. as the first signs of a migrant surge emerge under President Biden.

Agents, officials and analysts say a combination of relaxed Biden border policies, coronavirus restrictions on holding people and deteriorating levels of cooperation from Mexico have left parts of the border in Texas unable to handle the surge.

One agent told The Washington Times they fear that what is happening in Texas will soon spread west to New Mexico, Arizona and California.

For now, the Del Rio area of Texas is hit hard, said Todd Bensman, a Texas-based homeland security expert and senior fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.

He said Haitians, in particular, are streaming into the U.S. by crossing the Rio Grande. Once captured, they are fingerprinted, given immigration court summonses and released. Some head to Greyhound buses, and others are wealthy enough to board planes, said Mr. Bensman, pointing to information from a local migrant assistance group.

“We’re on the front end of what will very likely turn into a major migration crisis on the border,” Mr. Bensman told The Times. “The catch-and-release practice is the single most powerful incentive that exists on earth for mass migration. Nothing else propels mass migration like catch-and-release, and very very quickly.”

DOCUMENT: Smuggling snapshot

Customs and Border Protection confirmed to The Times that it is releasing people. The agency said the number of people attempting to jump the border has risen steadily since soon after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

Because of coronavirus social distancing restrictions, the agency said, it doesn’t have the capacity to hold as many people in some border stations as it normally would.

“Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren’t possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a Notice to Appear, and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing,” the agency said.

The agency added: “As the administration reviews the current immigration process, balancing it against the ongoing pandemic, we will continue to use all current authorities to avoid keeping individuals in a congregate setting for any length of time.”

One major change, agents and analysts say, is in Mexico. President Trump pressured the government in Mexico City to accept returns of people caught at the border from other countries.

Now, as the number of migrants surges, so does the number of people the U.S. is trying to immediately return. Mexico has signaled that the flow is overwhelming, at least in parts of Texas, and it is refusing to accept migrants back into the country, leading to the catch-and-release on the U.S. side.

Mr. Bensman said the policy is applied unevenly. He saw firsthand Border Patrol agents and CBP officers blocking entry or returning people in the El Paso sector, even as the Del Rio sector finds itself unable to do so.

Mr. Bensman, who has just published “America’s Covert Border War,” a book about jihadi infiltration, said he also saw the Mexican military patrolling its side of the border in the El Paso region.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington referred questions to the Foreign Ministry, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mark Morgan, the immediate past commissioner at CBP, said a staggering 4,500 people are trying to enter the U.S. every day borderwide. About 1,000 get away or turn back on their own, leaving border agents and officers to deal with some 3,500.

Most are still expelled under a pandemic order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but even a small number per day quickly adds up.

Mr. Morgan said CBP caught and released fewer than 1,000 people in 2020. In the weeks since Mr. Biden took office, he said, more than that have been caught and released.

“He has created the next immigration crisis, which in my opinion is already upon us,” Mr. Morgan said.

When the CDC order is lifted, he said, it will “become a catastrophic crisis in a couple of days.”

Mr. Morgan said Mr. Biden’s early moves have largely dismantled the successful Trump-era policies and replaced them with task forces to study other solutions. In the meantime, migrants say they are taking advantage of a chance to rush the border.

The new president ordered a 100-day pause on most deportations, halted border wall construction and had the State Department cancel U.S. cooperation agreements with Central American countries to try to derail some illegal immigration.

Mr. Biden also directed the Homeland Security Department to end the Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as “Remain in Mexico,” which allowed authorities to push new migrants back across the border to await their immigration hearings, denying them a foothold in the U.S.

He has left in place the CDC order related to the coronavirus.

The Biden team has proposed a massive program of nation-building in Latin America to tackle what it calls the root causes of illegal immigration — less-developed economies and endemic violence.

Mr. Bensman said those answers, if they do come to fruition, are years in the making. In the meantime, he said, the relaxation of Trump policies will entice a massive surge of people.

“I don’t know what could stop it,” he said. “The Mexicans aren’t stopping it, and the Americans aren’t stopping it.”

For Border Patrol agents, the return of catch-and-release is an ominous signal. They say it’s the single biggest enticement for migrants.

At the peak in May 2019, more than 4,000 people a day were streaming into the U.S., most of them family units and almost all of them quickly released.

Of nearly 1 million illegal immigrants nabbed in fiscal year 2019, more than two-thirds were believed to be still in the U.S. six months after the end of the fiscal year. More than 500,000 of the migrants that year were family units, and only about 21,000 had been deported six months after the year ended.

Mr. Morgan said the Trump administration’s gains in 2020, when the border numbers plummeted, sapped billions of dollars in profits from the cartels that control the smuggling. Now, he said, they are going to make it back with the new surge.

The Washington Times tracks smuggling prosecutions in border areas, southern Texas in particular, and the rates migrants are paying have ticked up in recent months. Now, $8,000 is a standard rate to be ushered across the border for Mexicans and those from the key Central American countries.

The going rate for being smuggled hidden in a car through a border port of entry is about double that. Being smuggled by water along the California coast runs somewhere in between.

There have been several startling developments during the last few weeks:

⦁ Eleven Iranians were nabbed by agents near the border crossing at San Luis, Arizona, last week. Though there is no public evidence of a connection to terrorism, and the nature of the group — five women and six men — makes that unlikely, their ability to breach the border did set off alarms in Washington.

⦁ Agents in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas reported nabbing 253 illegal immigrants in one hour Wednesday, including one mini-caravan of 166 people, mostly traveling as families or unaccompanied alien children. While agents were processing them, another group of 87 people turned themselves in.

⦁ In California, agents rescued a large group of migrants that tried to cross through a drainage tube during severe rain. One man drowned, but agents managed to save nine others, including a woman who was unconscious and was revived by an agent performing CPR chest compressions until she coughed up water and began breathing again.

Agents later identified the dead man as Diego Soto-Castro, who they say was one of the smugglers paid to lead the group through the tunnel. His brother, Leobardo Soto-Toledo, told agents he was paid $500 to go through the culvert and yell for help to try to get Border Patrol agents to open the grate, figuring the group could surge through and burst into the U.S.

While agents were distracted by saving the first group, smugglers sent a second group of 16 through the culvert, said Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke. Agents managed to nab that group too.

“While I am grateful for the lifesaving efforts of our agents and partners, this serves as a grim reminder of the inherent dangers of crossing the border illegally,” Chief Heitke said.

Mr. Soto-Toledo has been charged with alien smuggling.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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