Most of the attention at the border is on the capture of children and families, but an even bigger problem could be the people who are getting away right now.
As agents are pulled off their regular patrol duties to take care of children and families, as many as 800 to 1,000 people a day are likely sneaking by the Border Patrol and winding their way deeper into the U.S., according to one former official.
They are not getting COVID-19 testing, and they often have troubling criminal cases.
Drugs are also coming through the same holes in the border’s defenses, said Mark Morgan, who was acting commissioner at Customs and Border Protection during the Trump administration and served as chief of the Border Patrol in the Obama years.
“The smugglers are using the families and UACs as a diversionary tactic,” said Mr. Morgan, referring to the migrant families and unaccompanied alien children whose care is absorbing agents’ time. “Who do you think are the ones getting away? It’s not your upstanding citizens. That’s where the criminal element is coming in. That’s where the gang members are getting through.”
They are known in Border Patrol speak as “gotaways,” and Mr. Morgan said their numbers spike during migrant surges because agents get shunted onto other duties.
During the 2019 surge, some Border Patrol sectors reported as much as 40% of agents’ time was spent taking care of families and unaccompanied children. The Border Patrol’s chief at the time testified to Congress that the “gotaways” numbered in the tens of thousands.
The Washington Times asked Customs and Border Protection for the estimates of “gotaways” during the latest surge, but an agency spokesman said they were not available.
Cochise County runs its own camera system in southern Arizona and in court documents earlier this month estimated that “gotaways” represented 72% of the migrants in the area it covers.
The rate in Texas, where most of the surge is occurring, is likely lower because the unaccompanied children and some migrant families want to be caught. They know they won’t be sent back under current conditions and policy. Indeed, the government pays to unite the children with family living in the U.S., often themselves illegally, so there is even a monetary incentive for children to be caught.
Of 6,000 migrants nabbed along the southern border Thursday, 600 were unaccompanied juveniles and another 2,200 were family migrants. Of those, only 300 were expelled under the pandemic border shutdown order, a senior Border Patrol official told reporters.
Caring for that number of migrants is taxing the Border Patrol, leaving the gaps in the line that the cartels exploit.
Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels said he has been told that agents are so overwhelmed that they will no longer be able to respond if his deputies encounter suspected illegal immigrants and call them in.
That means his department will now be forced into catch-and-release.
“Due to child care duties and enhanced administrative processing reassignments, effective March 28, I was told by Border Patrol leadership that they would not be able to assist my deputies who come into contact with potential undocumented individuals,” Sheriff Dannels told The Times. “We have to release them. It’s the continued domino impact by this administration.”
He said he had never seen this kind of policy before, including during the 2014 and 2019 surges.
“Sadly, a new direction,” he said.
One Border Patrol station that usually runs several highway checkpoints has effectively been shut down altogether, with the agents siphoned to caretaking duties. The checkpoints stand unmanned, giving smugglers an easy route north from the border.
“It is a high-risk situation for my deputies and law enforcement,” Sheriff Dannels said. “When you take agents off border security, cartels now have opportunities.”
The gotaways are particularly troubling during the pandemic.
After early bungles, Homeland Security officials now say most migrants caught are being tested for COVID-19 and can be quarantined if found to be infected. But those who evade capture are not tested and often penetrate deeper into the country through the same public transportation systems everyone else is using.
Positive COVID-19 test rates for migrants who have been tested run from about 10% to as high as 25%, so if 1,000 people are evading capture each day, that means as many as 250 migrants with COVID-19 are going into U.S. communities each day.
Former President Donald Trump, who told Fox News over the weekend that he is planning his own visit to the border to take stock of things, said the Biden administration is “doing a terrible job.”
“Drugs are pouring in at a number that we’ve never seen before now,” Mr. Trump said.
Overall, that’s not true. Total seizures this year are down compared with the past three years at this point. But the amount of hard drugs is up dramatically.
The Border Patrol, which patrols the boundary, and CBP’s Office of Field Operations, which mans the ports of entry, have made more fentanyl seizures in the first five months of fiscal year 2021 than in all of 2018, 2019 or 2020.
Cocaine seizures are also on track to outpace 2020.
Sheriff Dannels said the migrants and smugglers crossing the border are increasingly willing to resist and fight, making the encounters dangerous.
Last week The Times learned of a special bulletin issued by one Border Patrol station in Arizona reporting on uncorroborated intelligence that two Mexican migrants were looking to jump the border with the intention of killing a cop.
In Texas, meanwhile, Border Patrol agents are so overwhelmed that they have started to catch and release illegal immigrant families without giving them court dates for their cases to be heard.
The Border Patrol is trying to adjust.
“The threats that we see on the southwest border are significant,” a senior agency official told reporters last week in a briefing conducted on the condition of anonymity. “We have on any given day criminal aliens that are exploiting, but we’re doing a really good job of addressing those threats to the best of our ability.”
Three hundred agents have been pulled off the line on the northern border with Canada and redeployed to the southern border to boost numbers.
The first class of processing officers will graduate from training this week. They will be able to handle some of the detention and care duties, allowing agents to get back into the field.
“We haven’t just abandoned the border. We’re doing everything we can to make sure the border is secure and that we are addressing those threats,” the official said.