WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Henry Cuellar quizzed Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Cuellar wanted to know why so many Customs and Border Protection officers were taken from land port of entry posts in the Laredo sector, which stretches from Del Rio to Brownsville.

The Laredo Democrat said it was important the officers fulfill their normal roles, and not spend time in processing centers “changing diapers.”

By being at their normal posts, legitimate trade is enhanced, Cuellar said, thus contributing to American economic prosperity, and protecting against risks to public health and safety.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar

The Cuellar-McAleenan interchange came during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the department’s budget request for fiscal year 2020.

“Do you know when we can get our officers back?” Cuellar asked.

“That depends on the flow and it depends of how successful we are at providing the volunteer forces  and our contracting time for bringing in some of these contracted resources,” McAleenan responded.

“Will you spread the pain to other places because it is not fair the Laredo district is taking 15 percent of the cut or transfers and I really would appreciate your help on this,” Cuellar said.

“We are balancing, across field officers,” McAleenan responded. 

This was McAleenan’s first congressional hearing since replacing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. While many of the House members on the appropriations subcommittee wanted to focus on DHS’s handling of the asylum-seeker “crisis,” Cuellar wanted to focus on international trade.

“One issue I do want to bring up is, of course, trade. Every day there is $1.5 billion worth of trade between the U.S. and Mexico,” Cuellar said. “We handle seven out of every ten trucks that come from Mexico, through our (Laredo sector) port of entry.”

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan

Cuellar pointed out that DHS moved 545 CBP officers from the Laredo sector to help Border Patrol process asylum seekers in the McAllen area. “Fifteen percent of that came from the Laredo district, which is the largest port,” Cuellar said.

Cuellar said he has been told that 225 of the 545 CBP officers have now been returned to their normal duties at land ports of entry. He reminded McAleenan that he had given five different ideas for DHS to work on.

“I asked you to spread the pain and go, with all due respect, to other cities and, without mentioning any cities, instead of just taking them from the border, spread the pain. I asked you about overtime, I asked you about waivers, I asked you about volunteer forces, the retired officers, Coast Guard also. So I gave you different ideas, even the public-private partnership law that we passed some years ago, where private industry is prepared to pay, to get some of this work processed.”

Cuellar said the federal government “still needs to do more” and that he would appreciate McAleenen’s help so the Laredo sector can get its CBP officers back. 

“They should not be changing diapers, they should not be making food. I think there is another way to address that. This is why requested in this new budget and I hope the committee will go with this, 1,200 new entry positions for Border Patrol and CBP, where they can do everything except arrest people. 

“But, I don’t think trained officers should be changing diapers or making some of those changes. I know that is important work but the immigration issue should not affect the trade issue. I would appreciate anything you can do to bring back those officers.”

McAleenan responded:

“Thank you, Congressman. I obviously share your concerns about law enforcement professionals, highly trained, working on care and custody issues. And, obviously, about CBP officers being diverted from their port of entry responsibilities, processing that incredible volume of lawful trade as well as their counter-narcotics missions and other critical missions at the ports of entry.”

McAleenan said the decision to take CBP officers from the Laredo sector was “an immediate term response to a crisis in terms of the numbers in our custody and the time people were facing in custody.”

He said: “We needed to provide some support to our Border Patrol agents. Obviously, we needed to start with folks who were nearby, that is why some of the Laredo and some of the other land ports of entry were most affected in that first tranche.”

McAleenan said his department has now expanded the net in search of additional field officers to support Border Patrol.

“We have advised stakeholders in the aviation industry for international air arrivals and the sea ports that there are going to be other impacts in other areas as well. We have done all of those recommendations, increased overtime, we have put in waivers, we have volunteer forces now deployed. It is a bit of a process but we are bringing in as many as we can because we need all hands of deck.”