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Leaked CBP memo: U.S. 'well-prepared' for caravan traveling through Mexico

While the White House fulminates against the possibility that a "caravan" of people traveling on foot more than 900 miles from the border could seek asylum in the United States, the head of Customs and Border Protection said in an internal memo that border officials are already "well-prepared" to deal with the exodus of parents and children from three Central American countries.

In an email sent to CBP personnel, including those in the Tucson Sector, but not released to the public, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan downplayed the group of around 7,000 people, including around 1,000 children, who walked into southern Mexico from Guatemala earlier this month. 

"I know that you have seen the recent reporting of large groups of migrants moving toward the United States in Southern Mexico in so-called 'caravans,'" McAleenan wrote. "I want you to know that U.S. Customs and Border Protection will be well-prepared. We are monitoring the situation closely. The closest of the three groups remain over a thousand miles away from our border and is currently moving only a few dozen miles per day." 

McAleenan said that CBP was working with other agencies to "ensure that we have effective operational plans to ensure border security in the event of the arrival" either at the nation's ports of entry, or along the border. "We will be reinforcing staffing, well in advance, to ensure that we can address any contingency, with support from interagency partners," he said in the memo, which was leaked to TucsonSentinel.com by a federal employee.

"Regardless of the operational contingencies we may face, please know this: we will ensure border security – we will not allow a large group to enter the US unlawfully; we will act in accordance with the highest principles of law enforcement; we will treat intending migrants humanely and professionally at all times," McAleenan said. "And most importantly, the safety of our CBP personnel, especially our law enforcement professionals on the frontline, will remain paramount." 

The memo came just before the White House announced that it was pushing to send another 800 soldiers to the southwestern border, adding to the contingents of National Guard troops who were deployed in May as part of Operation Guardian Support. 

On Friday, Homeland Security said that the Defense Department has approved the request, and will send troops to provide planning assistance and engineering support, as well as helicopters and other aircraft, to the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Already, around 2,200 soldiers are working in joint missions along the border in support roles, including repairing Border Patrol vehicles, helping with inspections at the ports of entry, including the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, and using helicopters and airplanes to direct agents on the ground. 

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At the same time, the administration appears ready to use the same authority that was invoked as part of the travel ban on people traveling from several Muslim-majority countries, to deny asylum because it "would be contrary to the national interest"and "detrimental to the interests of the United States," the Washington Post reported. 

Omar Jadwat, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, blasted the policy. 

"It’s disgraceful the Trump administration would even consider what’s being reported. It would mean refusing to protect people who can prove they are fleeing persecution. That would be a huge moral failure and any plan along these lines will be subject to intense legal scrutiny," Jadwat said. 

Earlier this week, CBP released the total numbers of people apprehended this fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. 

The number of people coming from Central America has dramatically outpaced the number of Mexican nationals, the data showed. In 2007, around 852,000 people were apprehended by Border Patrol, and of those, around 94 percent were from Mexico. However, ten years later, Central Americans were 56 percent of those apprehended, making it difficult for CBP to rapidly deport them back to their country of origin. 

At the same time, many of the people coming from three Central American countries are traveling as "family units"—usually a parent traveling with one or two children—which dramatically changes how long CBP officials can hold people, either at remote Border Patrol stations, or at holding facilities managed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under U.S. law. 

This fiscal year, CBP officials, including Border Patrol agents and officials at the ports, apprehended nearly 400,000 people are of those nearly 91,000 people were traveling as families. 

In Arizona, nearly 40 percent of those caught by Border Patrol were either families, or children traveling alone, almost all from Central America. The Yuma Sector, which straddles the Colorado River and covers part of California and Arizona, showed the largest increase in the number of families who came into the U.S. Of those picked up by Border Patrol, more than three-fourths were either families or minors traveling alone, CBP data showed. 

And, this pattern has continued into the new fiscal year. 

On October 18, a video camera mounted on a pole, captured images of a group of people climbing over the "legacy" landing mat fencing near the San Luis Port of Entry near Yuma Arizona. According a Border Patrol spokesman, around 3:30 a.m., Border Patrol agents apprehended 108 people, including nine infants ranging from one to five years old, and 43 older children, almost all from Guatemala. 

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The agency said the group were "dropped off" in four places simultaneously by "smuggling facilitators." 

"These numbers demonstrate that our immigration challenges continue to change, as we face two distinct groups at our border—smugglers, criminals, and single adults seeking to evade apprehension on the one hand, and a second group, made up primarily of family units and unaccompanied children who generally turn themselves in to CBP after crossing illegally or at a Port of Entry," McAleenan said. "We need different tools to effectively manage both." 

"The demographics continue to change as well, with half of all apprehensions and inadmissibles coming from Central America, and a record number of family units arriving at our border, demonstrating both the gaps in our legal framework and the strong push factors in the countries of origin," he said. 

McAleenan echoed this statement during a press conference on Friday morning in Calexico, where he along with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen celebrated the installation of 30-foot-high "bollard" fence, part of a running series of border barrier replacements that began under the Obama administration. 

McAleenan said that he was traveling with Nielsen to see three of the nine southwest border patrol sectors, including the El Centro Sector where Friday’s press conference was held. 

"As you can see this is a formidable barrier that will help our Border Patrol agents secure this border," McAleenan said. Adding that agents in the area face "two distinct populations."  

"We have smugglers, criminals, and single adults trying to evade capture,” he said. "At the same time, we have an increasing number of family units and children coming in and turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents, after making a very dangerous journey, all the way primarily from Central America in the hands of some of the most violent criminal organizations in the world." 

"This is a multifaceted challenge, and we need multiple solutions to address it," he said. 

"We are looking at every possible way, within the legal construct that we have, to make sure that those who do not have a legal right to enter this country are not coming" said Nielsen. "Everything is on the table."

On Wednesday, Mexican officials said that around 3,600 people were traveling in the caravan and around 1,700 had begun the process to seek asylum in Mexico. A shelter estimated that the group that traveled from Hidalgo to Tapachula and stayed in a provisional shelter included around 2,622 men, and 2,234 women, along with nearly 2,400 children. 

In May, a smaller caravan traveled up through the U.S., setting off an angry response from the Trump administration, which ultimately resulted in the first deployment of National Guard troops along with southwest border. Of the 1,500 people in the caravan, around 400 people actually applied for asylum in the United States. 

During the press conference, Nielsen reiterated a long-running complaint from U.S. officials that U.S. law meant that too many people stayed in the country while seeking asylum, and that U.S. law hamstrings the agency from detaining children and their parents for longer than 20 days. Under the Flores Agreement, officials cannot detain children in a "detention setting" for longer than 20 days, and children must be released in 72 hours from Border Patrol facilities. 

However, a GAO report found that in some cases, federal officials violated this during the summer's "family separations" when nearly 3,000 children were stripped from their parents, so that mothers and father could be prosecuted for illegal entry. 

"The way that our system works, we have a very low threshold for the initial credible fear interview," Nielsen said. "So, we’re asking Congress. We’ve got to change the law, that gap is too big.”

DHS has targeted the Flores settlement throughout the year. In May, when Nielsen visited the Nogales area with U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, she said that Flores was one of the "legal loopholes" that should be rescinded by Congress. And, in early October, ICE officials blamed the Flores settlement for the sudden release of more than 200 families to private shelters and aid organizations.

In 2017, 120,000 "defensive asylum applications," were filed with federal officials, and of those, around eight percent were successfully granted that year. In 2008, around 13,000 applications were filed and 1 out of 5 were approved that year. 

"Your CBP leadership continues to fight for the resources and changes to law and policy we need to effectively carry out our challenging mission in this area. Over the past several months, CBP has briefed dozens of Members of Congress on the need for continued investment in CBP personnel and border security resources, including a wall system, advanced surveillance technology, facial recognition capability, air and marine assets, and innovative mobile systems," McAleenan wrote. 

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"That said, I know your work on this critical mission over the past year has placed unprecedented strain on you – and your families – along with our resources at and between our ports of entry," he wrote. 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Border Patrol agent in the Nogales area watches the border with a scope from a distant hill.