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Leaked documents show DHS seeking 'volunteers' to help manage influx of Central American families

Recruited staffers tasked with appearing in immigration courts, transportation, medical care and other logistics

The Department of Homeland Security is pressing personnel and civilian employees to join a "volunteer" force to help manage what Trump administration officials have called a "humanitarian and security crisis" along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In documents, leaked to TucsonSentinel.com, Homeland Security employees, including law enforcement personnel and civilians, were asked to join a "volunteer" force to help "frontline" agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement by signing up for a range of jobs, including appearing in immigration courts on the "government's behalf" and transporting people to hospitals and staying there until they were cleared for travel.

The level of internal pressure being placed on DHS employees to leave their regular jobs to work at the border is unclear, but internal sources told TucsonSentinel.com that some encouragement by supervisors is evident and the future may bring more direct pressures.

For weeks, Trump administration officials have sounded the alarm that an influx of families with children and children traveling without parents or guardians are pushing the immigration system to "a breaking point" by seeking asylum in the U.S. after fleeing violence in three Central American countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as parts of Mexico.

Those being asked to leave their DHS posts and head to the border include personnel from nearly a dozen agencies under DHS, including CBP and ICE, as well as the U.S. Secret Service, Coast Guard, and the Transportation and Security Administration. 

In March, CBP released figures that showed total apprehensions jumping 38 percent from January to February, after 66,450 people were taken into custody along the U.S.-Mexico border. Of those, nearly two-thirds were families with children or unaccompanied minors, most of them from Central America. 

A CBP official told TucsonSentinel.com that he expects March will follow this trend. 

This week, the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol began releasing families directly to Catholic Community Services, bypassing ICE custody. This follows similar moves made last week by the adjacent Yuma Sector, and Texas' El Paso Sector. 

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From December 21 to April 1, ICE released 125,565 people seeking asylum along the southwestern border, including 22,000 in the Phoenix area of responsibility, which covers Arizona, according to statistics released by the agency this week. 

In a letter to the heads of DHS "component" agencies, first reported by CNN and independently provided to TucsonSentinel.com, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen wrote that "the situation at our Southern Border is dire." 

"As a result, we have made the difficult determination to divert resources away from border security and toward full-time humanitarian response, and we have been forced to release individuals before they have fully processed through the immigration system," she said. 

In a document for the DHS Volunteer Force leaked to TucsonSentinel.com by a departmental employee, titled "DHS needs You!" the agency asked people to volunteer for a number of jobs at or near the border. "Even if your job is not directly impacted by the current humanitarian situation at our border, you can help. Although some roles require specific skills, others can be filled by any DHS employee once CBP or ICE provides appropriate training," the document said. 

DHS is seeking employees to volunteer for a number of jobs, including: 

  • High-capacity transport, which includes driving 15 to 50 people per trip from remote locations to Border Patrol stations, and from Border Patrol stations and ports of entry to "immigration facilities." 
  • Medical Assessment, which will ask "qualified personnel" to screen children and adults for medical needs while in custody at "select" ports of entries and Border Patrol stations that "do not currently have this capability through existing contracts." 
  • Hospital Watch, which will have employees transport people to "local health providers" and "provide security detail." Once people are declared "fit for travel" by doctors, the volunteers will transport them back. 
  • Meal distribution, including helping heat and distribute meals, snacks and "refreshment" for people in custody, and "document provision of care to ensure individuals receive appropriate nourishment every four hours, according to regulation and policy." 
  • Managing personal property by accounting for personal property by "tagging and logging bags and items" when people are taken into CBP custody, and when they are transferred to other agencies. 

DHS is also seeking volunteers to act as "health care providers." 

The documents showed that ICE is "seeking medical personnel to provide evaluation and treatment of its detained population consistent with facility capabilities and standard of care." This includes doctors, nurses, and other medical providers. 

ICE's legal office, known as the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor, is also seeking attorneys to help the agency fight asylum claims in court, and to prosecute deportation and removal proceedings in immigration courts, including the Executive Office for Immigration Review and the Board of Immigration Appeals, to "uphold the immigration laws of the United States." 

Volunteer attorneys will litigate immigration cases and provide "case support" for one year, with an option to end that for another year. "Prior immigration experience is not required as ICE OPLA will provide requisite training," the document said. 

While the program was announced as a volunteer program, CBP personnel remained unsure whether that would continue if DHS did not get the personnel it was expecting. 

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During a teleconference, a DHS employee asked if they would be pressed into service by the agency, and a supervisor responded curtly, "That is unknown." Other CBP law enforcement officials were unsure if they'd be reassigned leaving other duties unfulfilled.

Volunteer force added as officers are reassigned

The documents were clear that the DHS volunteers were not part of the "Surge Capacity Force," a program that shifts people from DHS and other agencies during "catastrophic disaster" that "exceeds the capacity" of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Last week, CBP announced that it would reassign 750 CBP officers from border crossing facilities to support Border Patrol, a move that Arizona Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Ann Kirkpatrick criticized in a letter Thursday. 

In their letter, Grijalva and Kirkpatrick said that the ports were "critical to the national security and economic vitality of our country, noting that in the Nogales-area alone, 800 trains, more than 337,000 trucks, 3.6 million cars, and10.8 million people crossed the border in 2018."

"Reducing the number of Customs officers will only increase the average wait times for cars, trucks and pedestrians and significantly disrupt the efficient flow of economic activity and tourism that benefits all of Arizona," they wrote. 

The lawmakers also criticized a move that could make Border Patrol agents responsible for conducting credible fear interviews for asylum seekers. This would potentially violate U.S. law, which requires trained asylum officers to conduct these interviews, which are the first step in allowing people to seek asylum in the United States.

"Asylum seekers include vulnerable populations who have suffered persecution and trauma. They must be interviewed by someone who is properly trained," said Grijalva and Kirkpatrick. 

Officials react to influx

"The system is well beyond capacity and remains at a breaking point," said CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan during a press conference. "It should be very clear from these numbers that we are facing alarming trends in the rising volumes of people illegally crossing our southwest border, or arriving at our ports of entry without documents," he said.

"This increased flow presents currently at our highest levels in over a decade both a border security and a humanitarian crisis," he said. 

Weeks later, during an interview in March, the new chief of the Tucson Sector, Roy Villareal, reiterated this point: 

"When you look across the entire Southwest border — again looking at the system that's in place — it is not designed to handle this type of migratory flow. That's pushed us to a breaking point. We don't have adequate facilities and I challenge you to find a law enforcement entity tasked with arresting families," he said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

An officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection near the Mariposa port of entry in January.

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