Trump Claims 'National Emergency,' But Border Patrol Taking Little Action Over 'Caravan'

A child in the “caravan” of largely Guatemalan, Honduran and El Salvadoran citizens sleeps on a bridge connecting Guatemala and Mexico. A child in the “caravan” of largely Guatemalan, Honduran and El Salvadoran citizens sleeps on a bridge connecting Guatemala and Mexico. Oliver de Ros / AP

President Trump on Monday told the Homeland Security Department to treat the group of asylum-seeking Central American migrants traveling north toward the U.S. border together as a “national emergency,” but the administration has yet to outline any specific steps it plans to take in response to that directive.

The “caravan” of largely Guatemalan, Honduran and El Salvadoran citizens is currently in Mexico, and Trump has repeatedly highlighted the issue just two weeks before the midterm elections to demonstrate what he calls faulty Democratic immigration policies. His pronouncements have yet to lead to any material policy decisions at DHS or its Customs and Border Protection component, according to the head of the National Border Patrol Council.

“It’s frustrating and demoralizing to our agents,” said Brandon Judd, the NBPC president and a border agent of 20 years, explaining that “nothing” has been done in anticipation of the caravan’s arrival.

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A DHS spokesperson declined to say on the record if the department has implemented or planned any policies in reaction to the caravan or the president’s “national emergency” declaration.

A similar group of migrants arrived at the U.S. border in April, which Trump ultimately highlighted in asking governors of several border states to deploy National Guardsmen to the border. Amnesty International, which sent representatives to travel with the caravan to monitor how its members were treated, said CBP “systematically” turned away the migrants before processing a select number each day. DHS never deployed the proper resources to handle the influx of asylum-seekers, Amnesty said in a recent report, despite Trump talking about it for weeks in advance.

“We had mass chaos,” Judd said of the April incident. “We should have learned from the difficulties and the failures.” Instead, he said, CBP and the Border Patrol have “not given us one new policy, one new operation.”

Judd noted that one in five CBP employees are managers not on the front lines, and they could be mobilized into a “rapid deployment posture” to handle any forthcoming influx. Trump has tasked the Border Patrol with hiring 5,000 new agents, but the agency has struggled to keep pace with attrition.

David Aguilar, the Border Patrol chief in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, said there are some “tangible efforts” the agency can make to prepare for the caravan. While DHS has remained quiet about its plans, Aguilar said the department is likely taking some steps behind the scenes to prepare for augmentation and to gather “situational awareness” on exactly who is in the caravan.

“The Border Patrol will increase its presence” and capabilities, Aguilar said, though he added structural problems in the immigration system will make the response difficult. “Yes, Border Patrol will ramp up, yes Border Patrol will do its job,” he said. “But they too will be overwhelmed.”

CBP must have the capacity to immediately turn over immigrants to the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which Aguilar said also must be “ramped up.” The already backlogged judges in the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review must also prepare for an increased workload. While there are some small steps those agencies can take to prepare, as they did in 2014 when the country saw a dramatic increase in unaccompanied immigrant children, ultimately the fix will require long-term, comprehensive action, Aguilar said.  

Trump said on Saturday he would “close up the border” if the caravan reaches the United States. The United Nations, which is tracking the group now in southern Mexico, said it is now composed of 7,200 migrants and is likely to remain in Mexico for “an extended period of time,” according to the Associated Press.

“I would call in the military and I would seal off the border,” Trump said, possibly signaling that he plans to again ask border-state governors to deploy their National Guards.  

State Department Secretary Mike Pompeo in a statement Monday applauded the help of the UN and said State would deploy resources to help foreign allies as necessary.

“We welcome the government of Mexico's collaboration with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to address refugee and migration issues in the region, including the influx of people arriving in Mexico,” Pompeo said. “The United States stands ready to assist the Government of Mexico in this effort.”

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a recent tweet the department would enforce all border laws in response to the caravan and warned its members DHS would take “every available measure to prevent your illegal entry.” She also thanked “the hardworking men and women of CBP for confronting these challenges with professionalism, determination and compassion day in and day out.” She added in a statement Monday that DHS will work with its partners in the region to prosecute those encouraging the caravan’s travels.

Eventually, explained Aguilar, now a principal at GSIS, the caravan issue will be resolved and drop from the headlines, but the underlying issues will continue to disrupt the immigration system.

“There are lingering issues that remain that will continue to cause problems,” Aguilar said.

Judd, the Border Patrol council president, is not expecting the Trump administration’s immediate response to go smoothly.

“We’re just flat out not prepared for it,” Judd said. “That just makes our agents insanely frustrated.”

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