LAREDO, Texas – The Texas Border Coalition has criticized the Trump administration for reassigning customs officers at ports of entry. 

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said moving 750 border inspection agents from their duties protecting U.S. border bridges was necessary to help process newly arrived immigrants and asylum seekers.

However, the move has led to long delays at international bridges. This is having a detrimental impact on commerce and tourism, said Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz, who chairs TBC. In a statement issued by TBC, Saenz said:

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz

“With the crisis of a threatened border shutdown behind us, Texas border communities are now confronting a drawn-out disaster involving hours-long delays for border crossings – in some cases ports of entry being closed for full days.

“These delays are inflicting significant harm to the economic health of border communities, the nation and the 5 million American jobs that depend on cross-border trade.

“The delays result from a decision by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to reassign 750 border inspection agents from their duties protecting the United States at border ports of entry to help process newly arrived immigrants and asylum seekers.

“As border leaders, we understand the importance of border security, including at the ports of entry where most of the dangerous drugs are smuggled into our country. It is important to provide an orderly and humane process for immigrants and asylum seekers. However, diverting resources from our ports of entry is not the responsible way to achieve this aim. We need our inspection agents at their posts protecting our nation. We strongly believe we can secure the border without impeding the free flow of legitimate trade and tourism.

“On March 27, the DHS announced a plan to ask volunteers from the U.S. Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration and other Homeland Security agencies to go to the border to help with the processing of Central American families. The Texas Border Coalition strongly urges the Department to implement this volunteer strategy with great haste and to return border agents to their protective duties immediately.”

TBC is a collective voice of border mayors, county judges, economic development commissions focused on issues that affect 2.5 million people along the Texas-Mexico border region and economically disadvantaged counties from El Paso to Brownsville.

Congressional viewpoint

Border members of Congress are also angry that CBP officers have been pulled away from ports of entry.

Congressman Henry Cuellar of Laredo pointed out that the U.S. and Mexico work cooperatively to secure their shared border and facilitate the efficient flow of goods and tourism, while curtailing the illicit flow of drugs, people, arms, and cash at ports of entry. 

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar

He said operations serve as the backbone of bilateral interconnectedness. He said closing down any one of the ports of entry would have a myriad of unintended and irreparable economic, diplomatic, cultural, and humanitarian consequences.

“Moving customs officers from the international bridge in Laredo is both unnecessary and detrimental. I urge Secretary Nielsen to reassign all appropriate personnel to operations at ports of entry in order to prevent delays that could have grave repercussions for industries whose supply chains are heavily integrated across North America,” Cuellar said.

“As a border member representing the largest inland port of entry in the U.S., I am certain of the disastrous effects this would have on our nation’s economy. I have worked tirelessly through the appropriations process to provide DHS and CBP additional funding, personnel, and technology to make the cross-border process as effective as possible. This decision is completely unacceptable.”

President Trump had threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border in order to force Mexico to stop migrants coming north from Central America. He has since backed away from the threat.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso said any potential closure of the border would cause extensive economic harm to U.S. markets and sever the bilateral trade relationship between the two countries. 

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar

“President Trump’s reckless behavior is a true national crisis. Shutting down the border will absolutely devastate our economy; continuing to withhold aid to Central America will only increase the number of refugees at our doorstep; and, the cruelty of his approach to asylum-seeking families in pursuit of the American Dream is a violation of human rights and only makes a challenge much worse,” Escobar said.

Escobar said she would continue to “stand against any attempts to close our southern border, sabotage our efforts to address the root causes of migration, and strip away due process and humane treatment for those seeking a better life.”

Congressman Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen issued the following statement in response to reports that international bridges in the Rio Grande Valley are facing extensive delays due to the reassignment of CBP personnel and the President’s recent threat to close the border:

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel already face challenges in how quickly it processes trade on a day-to-day basis across multiple international bridges in the Rio Grande Valley and along the U.S. Southwest Border.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez

“What I cannot understand is how redirecting 750 CBP officers away from ports of entry and threatening to close the border helps. Instead, this has only exacerbated currently understaffed border agencies’ ability to efficiently and effectively process cross-border trade. Lanes are closing. Produce awaits in peril, some of it rotting before making it to grocery stores in the U.S. United States citizens are waiting hours on bridges to return home after a day of work in Mexico. Meanwhile, we have thousands of unfilled CBP positions that have been vacant for over a year now, and a President who cannot understand why we need to add more immigration judges to our current system. The irony.

“I want President Trump, Secretary Nielsen, and Commissioner McAleenan to take responsibility for this economic turmoil because this is a monster of their own creation.”

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, Gonzalez said Nielsen’s decision to move CBP personnel from ports of entry was unacceptable.

“They have the resources, they can find the resources. They are not even giving overtime to the CBP officers that are there now. That would alleviate the problem because they could work double shifts. We just appropriated funding for 1,200 new agents. They could go out and hire more people,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said he believes President Trump is threatening to close the border and move CBP personnel for political reasons.

“It is sad this has become such a political issue. If you cannot plan for having a mass exodus you should be fired. He is effectively closing down the border by slowing down trade, slowing down tourism,” Gonzalez said.

“We have Easter Week coming, which is a big week for our local businesses, hotels and restaurants. Having the bridges understaffed during this week will have a huge economic impact.”

DHS News Release

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Arizona Gov. Doug Duty take a tour of the border after the National Guard came to help out, in San Luis, Arizona, at the U.S.-Mexico border on April 18, 2018. (Photo: Arizona Central)

DHS issued this news release on April 1, 2019:

Today, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen issued a memorandum to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Kevin McAleenan outlining new steps the agency must take to combat the growing security and humanitarian crisis at the southern border.

“The crisis at our border is worsening, and DHS will do everything in its power to end it,” said Secretary Nielsen. “We will not stand idly by while Congress fails to act yet again, so all options are on the table. We will immediately redeploy hundreds of CBP personnel to the border to respond to this emergency. We will urgently pursue additional reinforcements from within DHS and the interagency. And we will require those seeking to enter the United States to wait in Mexico until an immigration court as reviewed their claims.”

The Secretary ordered Commissioner McAleenan to undertake emergency surge operations and immediately increase its temporary reassignment of personnel and resources from across the agency to address the influx of migrants.  According to the directive, the CBP Office of Field Operations shall accelerate its planned reallocation of up to 750 officers to Border Patrol Sectors that are affected by the emergency. 

Moreover, CBP is directed to explore raising that target, is authorized to exceed it, and shall notify the Secretary if reassignments are planned to exceed 2,000 personnel.

Secretary Nielsen further directed CBP to immediately expand the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a DHS initiative to return aliens to Mexico to wait during the pendency of their U.S. immigration proceedings. The Secretary directed CBP to return hundreds of additional migrants per day above current rates to Mexico, consistent with U.S. law and humanitarian obligations.  This increase in returns shall include individuals apprehended or encountered at or between POEs. Moreover, the agency is directed to plan for an expansion of MPP beyond the locations in which it currently operates in California and Texas.