Competing priorities and a critical staff shortage have contributed to lengthy wait times that asylum seekers face at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the federal agency responsible for staffing and overseeing them.
“We have narcotics … the opioid crisis, the cocaine numbers are skyrocketing, the heroin,” said Todd Owen, who as executive assistant commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations is the main person responsible for the nation’s ports.
“We are not going to pull resources from those other missions and direct everything towards a single priority, if you will,” he said. “So we have to balance the resources every day.”
During a Monday conference call, customs officials declined to say whether they have requested additional resources from the federal government to deal with an influx of asylum seekers at official entry points.
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Several top administration officials, including U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have urged asylum seekers to go to official border crossings, instead of entering the country illegally and risking prosecution and separation from their children.
“They can go to our ports of entry, if they want to claim asylum. And they won’t be arrested,” Sessions told law enforcement leaders last month.
But Customs and Border Protection officials are insisting that his remarks did not amount to an open invitation to asylum seekers to continue making the risky trek to the border.
They also denied that a policy was in place to have customs officers turn back asylum seekers at the ports, despite numerous media reports and documented cases from migrant advocates at the border.
The flow of asylum seekers to the ports is likely to continue for the time being. The number of families presenting themselves at entry points this year has reached an all time high, surpassing totals for the past two years, the agency said.
Even as immigration officers have processed more families at the ports this year, migrant advocates have questioned whether the government is moving as quickly as it can, even with constraints on resources.
June statistics show that the total number of inadmissible migrants officers processed at ports along the Southwest border decreased about 26 percent compared to May.
Officers processed fewer unaccompanied minors and migrant families last month despite a large number of families on the Mexican side of the border ports waiting to claim asylum.
The number of families increased every month this fiscal year, which began in October and peaked in May.
Customs and Border Protection agents processed 5,445 family members that month. But in June, the number of processed family members decreased to 2,743, half of May’s total.
Similarly, the number of unaccompanied minors agents processed at the ports also decreased by half, from 1,015 in May to 447 last month.
“I have the impression that it is intentional,” said the Rev. Sean Carroll, director of the Kino Border Initiative that deploys resources from six Catholic organizations on both sides of the border. The faith-based group offers aid to deported and northbound migrants in both Nogales, Arizona, and across the Mexican border in Nogales, Sonora.
The group also coordinated efforts to help dozens of migrant families from Central America and southern Mexico waiting up to two weeks to talk to an immigration officer. At other parts of the border, the waits can stretch up to four weeks.
“It’s very frustrating to see how vulnerable these men women and children are,” he said. “They have a right to have their request considered in an expeditious way, and that’s not happening right now.”
Variables that change month to month and from location to location determine how many asylum seekers officers can process at the ports of entry, customs officials said.
Some of those variables include seasonal travel flows at the border from citizens and authorized visa-holders, as well as an ongoing shortage of customs officers.
Owen cited Nogales as an example.
“Arizona, as you know, is our most understaffed field office that we have,” Owen said. “The port of Nogales has 142 officer vacancies themselves.”
To address the shortage in the short term, the agency has brought in customs officers from airports for temporary assignments at border ports such as Nogales. But despite some progress, Owen said other variables, such as drug smuggling at the ports, also can affect agents’ ability to process asylum-seekers.
“The narcotics interdiction for Nogales this year greatly exceeded what they had last year,” he said. “So we’re seeing much more in terms of illegal drug interdictions at the Nogales and Mariposa ports of entry. That, again, pulls resources and pulls focus.”
Many of the border port facilities were built decades ago and not designed to handle long-term detentions, Owen said. That has made it difficult to accommodate larger numbers of asylum seekers.
But if the administration has capacity issues, those need to be resolved, said lawyer Eleni Bakst of Human Rights First, a watchdog group that advocates for migrants’ rights to seek asylum.
“The U.S. needs to dedicate sufficient resources. It can’t continue to use this capacity narrative and use it as an excuse to not fulfill its domestic and international legal obligations,” she said.
Meanwhile, in border cities like Nogales, Sonora, U.S. customs agents have left many migrant families essentially stranded for an extended number of days and other families continue to arrive.
On average, customs officers are processing three to four families daily at the DeConcini port of entry, one of three in Nogales, Arizona, and the only one open 24 hours a day. Families waiting in line told The Arizona Republic they had been waiting for at least 10 days.
They spent most of that time at one of four shelters in the Mexican border city as they waited for their turn to talk to an immigration officer. The Kino Border Initiative is keeping a list of which families are next in line and are transporting them to the port once their number is near.
Despite those efforts, Carroll said his workers are concerned about the long wait time and what he perceives as a lack of action from U.S. officials to address the migrants’ legal right to make their asylum claims.
“It’s making people more vulnerable because they have to wait longer,” he said. “They’re in shelters, and they’re obviously being cared for.
“But still, there’s the fact that many of them are fleeing violence,” Carroll said. “And they’re in Nogales, Sonora, a place where many people prey on migrants and take advantage of them. They’re vulnerable.”
Follow Rafael Carranza on Twitter: @RafaelCarranza