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Homeland Security chief announces new focus for border enforcement

New funding, effort required to solve immigration problems

At the inauguration of a new Texas facility expanded to hold families going through deportation proceedings, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced changes to border enforcement Monday.

Calling President Barack Obama's executive action "an act of simple, common sense," Johnson said it would give his department a chance to focus on security, freeing it up to put more resources on the border instead of tracking illegal immigrants already inside the U.S.

"The reality is that no president’s administration – past, present or future, Republican or Democrat – is going to find and deport all these people," said Johnson. "So, we want to encourage them to come out of the shadows, get on the books, and be accountable."

"Those who came here illegally in the past, have been here for years, have committed no serious crimes, and have become integrated members of American life, are not priorities for removal," said Johnson. "But, all those who came here illegally after Jan. 1, 2014, in other words, beginning of this year, are now priorities for removal to their home countries."

"This must be clear going forward: Our borders are not open to illegal migration," said Johnson. 

As part of that move, Homeland Security will implement new border security measures to draw a "sharp distinction between past and future."

To enforce this policy, the agency will continue to operate holding facilities like the one in Dilley, Texas, which will be able to hold up to 2,400 people — far more than the number that could be held in Artesia, N.M. — which during its height held more than 700.

Formerly a camp for oil field workers, the South Texas Family Residential Center will replace temporary holding facilities at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in New Mexico, which were part of a stop-gap effort to deal with the summer's rush of unaccompanied minors and whole families fleeing Central America. 

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In August, a number of civil rights groups sued the agency over the treatment of families at the facility in Artesia.

Calling the facility a "deportation mill," the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Council, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and National Immigration Law Center filed a lawsuit, on behalf of five mothers and their children held in Artesia.

The lawsuit argued that the women and children seeking asylum in the United States from violence in Central America face a complicated legal system that employs intimidation and coercion to dissuade them from pursuing their claims.

Despite this, the agency continued to use the New Mexico facility until November 7, when officials stopped sending people to Artesia in favor of a facility in Karnes City and the new one in Dilley.

However, around 420 people still face hearings at the facility, where lawyers have little access and judges are using teleconferencing to speak with detainees.

Around 480 people are expected to arrive in Dilley this week.

The facility in Dilley is one of four expanded by immigration officials this year.

While the number of families coming through the border has decreased, Thomas S. Winkowski, the acting director for ICE, has said that the agency "must be prepared for traditional, seasonal increases in illegal migration."

"The Dilley facility will provide invaluable surge capacity should apprehensions of adults with children once again surge this spring," he said. 

In 2014, the agency apprehended 68,445 people in family units throughout the southwestern border.  Just over three-fourths in the Rio Grande Sector covering southern Texas. 

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The Tucson Sector showed a 45 percent increase in apprehensions.

However, even as the summer's rush has ended and the overall number of family units has declined by 40 percent, Customs and Border Protection continues to see an increase in the number of family units coming into two sectors.

In the Big Bend Sector, the agency has apprehended 45 people since October, a 500 percent increase from the same time period in 2014. Similarly, the Yuma Sector has apprehended 60 people, an increase of 114 percent from the year before.

New joint task forces

Johnson also announced the creation of three new joint task forces, which will combine U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

The U.S. Coast Guard will also be included in the Joint Task Force East, which will be responsible for the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

Joint Task Force West will cover the southwest land border from California to Texas and the third group will host investigations in support of the other two task forces.

Johnson also announced new leaders for each Task Force:

  • Joint Task Force-East will be headed by U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral William “Dean” Lee. Admiral Lee is currently the Commander of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area command. He will retain that command in addition to this new assignment.
  • Joint Task Force-West will be headed by Commander Robert Harris, currently the Chief Border Patrol Agent for the Laredo Sector on the southern border, and the Commander of our South Texas Campaign.
  • Joint Task Force-Investigations will be headed by David Marwell, Special Agent in Charge of the Dallas office of Homeland Security Investigations, which is part of ICE.

The agency will also continue "Operation Coyote," a crackdown on criminal smugglers. 

"The message should be clear: as a result of our new emphasis on the security of the southern border, it will now be more likely that you will be apprehended; it will now be more likely that you will be detained and sent back; and it will now be more likely that your hard-earned money to smuggle a family member to the United States will be seized and will never reach its intended source," said Johnson. 

Johnson said the agency would also work with the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to address what he called  “push” factors that cause people to emigrate to the United States. 

On Tuesday, Johnson should travel to Mexico City to meet with Mexican officials, including President Enrique Peña Nieto.

More funding needed

At the end of his speech, Johnson pushed Congress for new action and appropriations.

"Our executive actions are significant and comprehensive, but President Obama views them as a first step toward fixing our immigration system," he said. 

Johnson also said that Homeland Security needed supplemental funding to cover the surge in resources from this summer.

"We need to pay the bill for that surge, and keep those resources in place for the future," he said. 

In July, the White House asked for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to pay for the surge, but Congress rebuffed that request, requiring the DHS Secretary to pull funding from the disaster relief fund worth $405 million, as well as money from the Transportation Security Agency and other agencies underneath DHS's umbrella.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A young boy and his father await tickets after they were released from Department of Homeland Security custody.