Border Patrol Chief: We Need Tougher Policies at the Southwest Border

‘I'm talking about jail time. I'm talking about being removed from the country.’

By Andrew R. Arthur on March 22, 2024

Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens appeared on CBS News on Thursday and laid down the law, making clear that DHS needs “tougher policies” to deter migrants from entering the United States illegally — including “jail time” for violators and increased removals. He’s just saying what everyone who knows anything about the current disaster at the Southwest border is thinking, but what the administration likely doesn’t want to hear.

“Hold People Accountable Whenever They Choose to Break the Law”. He was interviewed by Camilo Montoya-Galvez, who started by asking Owens if he needed policy changes to address the border crisis. In response, Owens stated the obvious: “I think we need to be able to enforce the immigration laws that are on the books and hold people accountable whenever they choose to break the law.”

Montoya-Galvez then asked Owens whether he meant “tougher policies”, to which the chief responded bluntly:

Yes. Simply to deter the desire to come across other [than] at a point other than at the port of entry. If there’s no motivation to do it the right way, and the right way is at the port of entry. If there's no motivation to do it the right way, and the right way is causing people to have to wait a little bit longer, naturally, they're going to choose to come between the ports of entry. We need to take that off the table and make sure everybody's coming through the front door, and that allows us to get back to the business of securing the border.

Deterring illegal entries is plainly key to border security, and it’s sadly refreshing to hear a Biden administration appointee even use the word.

That’s because as I explained nearly two years ago, this White House and DHS have ditched deterrence as a border policy in lieu of allowing every alien who makes it to the United States to apply for asylum.

That said, and with due respect to Chief Owens, he knows that “the right way” to come to the United States is to apply for and receive a visa at a consulate abroad and then present that visa for admission to the United States at the port, not to show up empty-handed without any documents at a port of entry and make a claim there.

A port may be the “front door” to America, but you should need a key (in the form of a visa) to get in.

If I were to show up at the Canadian border without my documents and asked for admission, I seriously doubt the Canadian Border Services agent would conclude that I was attempting to cross “the world’s longest undefended border” in anything akin to “the right way”. Simply put, the port may be the “front door” to America, but you should need a key to get in.

That said, I am sympathetic to Owens and his agents, because they wouldn’t have to round up aliens if they all queued up at the ports — they only have to worry about the ones who cross between the ports.

The problem is that notwithstanding the administration’s policy of allowing 1,400 undocumented aliens per day (511,000 per annum) to preschedule their illegal entries using the CBP One app (which I have referred to as the “CBP One app interview scheme”), more than 4,000 other aliens per day were apprehended by agents crossing the border illegally anyway in January — and that was a “good month” by Biden-administration standards.

Short of allowing 5,400 to enter illegally through the ports each day (1.971 million annually), agents are still going to have to expend their time and resources apprehending the rest — unless the administration takes steps to deter them from coming illegally to begin with.

“Tougher Policies”. Fortunately, Owens offered some “tougher policies” that could be implemented to deter migrants from entering illegally.

Montoya-Galvez: What do you need the most to deter people from crossing the Rio Grande illegally or the desert in Arizona or California illegally?

Owens: So, everything revolves around being able to deliver a consequence for an action that you don’t want a person to commit. So, you don’t speed because you’re afraid of getting pulled over and getting a fine, a ticket. If people know that there’s going to be a consequence for breaking a law, they’re going to be less likely to do it.

The other piece of that is you need the agents out on patrol to be able to enforce that consequence. Those two things together at a basic level are what makes up our border-security apparatus.

The other things are force-multipliers for those agents that help them stay safe and help them do their job better. I’m talking about technology, I’m talking about infrastructure to be able to respond along the border ... all of those things come into play to make those agents out on patrol better at stopping that activity and better at being able to deliver the consequences once somebody does.

Montoya-Galvez: When you say “consequences”, you mean ...

Owens: Jail time. I'm talking about jail time. I'm talking about being removed from the country and I'm talking about being banned from being able to come back because you chose to come in the illegal way instead of the established lawful pathways that we set for you.

Forgive the long quote, but it’s important to read it all because what the chief is describing is a polar shift from anything that the White House is doing now.

“Jail time” could mean different things in this context, from detention pending removal proceedings (which is already mandated for illegal border migrants under the Immigration and Nationality Act) to prosecution and confinement. Regardless, the Biden administration eschews both detention and prosecution.

The Biden administration has released “at least 3.3 million” aliens encountered at the Southwest border (88.5 percent of all encounters by my conservative estimates) despite the fact, again, that Congress has mandated that they all be detained.

And as for prosecutions of the sort Chief Owens is describing, just 19 aliens were prosecuted for “improper entry” under section 275 of the INA in December 2023, a month in which nearly 250,000 migrants crossed the Southwest border illegally — a prosecution rate of less than .008 percent.

Just 19 aliens were prosecuted for “improper entry” in December 2023, a month in which nearly 250,000 migrants crossed the Southwest border illegally — a prosecution rate of less than .008 percent.

To use Owens’ analogy, if cops were pulling over fewer than eight out of every 100,000 speeders on the highway, traffic laws would be irrelevant. That’s what U.S. border enforcement looks like now.

Prosecuting half of those apprehended entering illegally, however, would be consistent with the administration’s CBP One app interview scheme because it would funnel aliens without documents to the ports, and it would be a strong deterrent that would free up agents.

Of course, Biden’s DHS and DOJ would never go for it because it views all illegal migrants as would-be “asylum seekers”, regardless of the strength or validity of their claims, or even whether they are requesting asylum at all — and it would be unjust to prosecute an asylum seeker by their lights regardless of how he or she entered.

“We Need to Take a Look at the Asylum Laws”. Chief Owens has some thoughts on that, as well, telling Montoya-Galvez that, “[W]e need to take a look at the asylum laws and make it where only people that have a legitimate claim can claim asylum.” That’s a novel idea.

It’s well past time both Congress and the administration took a look at the exploitation of our asylum laws by illegal migrants and crack down on abuses of our humanitarian instincts.

That means not only tightening the process by which USCIS asylum officers review border-asylum claims in the “credible fear” context (which favors positive determinations, as I’ve explained), but also the low credible fear standard itself.

CBS News contended that, “A bipartisan immigration deal negotiated in the Senate would have ... raised the standard of proof in initial asylum interviews and sped up the process for deciding asylum claims,” but as I have explained in detail elsewhere, neither of those claims is correct.

To be fair, I was initially hoodwinked by some nifty bureaucratic wordsmithing on the standard of proof for asylum claims in that bill, so I can’t fault anyone who does the same. That said, I invite anyone and everyone to look at my final analysis and prove I am wrong about my conclusion that the amendments to the asylum-screening standard are purely illusory.

“There’s No Better Partner for the Border Patrol than the Texas Department of Public Safety”. Early on, that interview delved into Texas Senate Bill 4 (SB 4), a measure currently tied up in the courts that would make illegal entry over an international boundary into the state a crime, but more importantly permit state magistrates to dismiss such charges if the alien agrees to return to Mexico voluntarily.

Owens was more guarded and politic in his statements on the merits of that law, stating “we’ll have to see what the courts decide on it”, before continuing umprompted:

I will tell you it’s not going to stop us from doing our job. I’ll tell you that, especially in Texas, there’s no better partner for the Border Patrol than the Texas Department of Public Safety. We have worked hand-in-hand with that agency for as long as I’ve been around, and I don’t see that ever stopping. They’ve been very good at complementing our mission, they back us up, when we’re out in the field, and we do for them as well. So, whatever the laws are that they’re going to be enforcing, our mission remains constant, their mission remains constant, and at the ground level, I don’t ever see it changing where we’re going to be there working together to keep the communities and our country safe.

At least part of that statement alludes to “Operation Lone Star”, a state initiative launched by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in March 2021 to supplement the Patrol’s border-security efforts.

One aspect of Lone Star has been the installation of concertina-wire (“c-wire”) barriers along the banks of the Rio Grande to deter migrants and smugglers from crossing the border into population centers on the Texas side.

Owens’ plaudits for Texas’ efforts, therefore, are interesting in light of the fact that his agency cut and dismantled sections of those barriers in Maverick County, Texas, to permit migrants to enter illegally, and that the Biden administration fought all the way to the Supreme Court to continue doing so.

That wanton destruction of state property, of course, was a PR disaster for a president who insists he is doing everything he can to secure the border, which explains why the barriers have remained untouched since the justices ruled. Perhaps Owens is attempting to “mend fences” with the state, metaphorically if not literally.

Will the White House Listen? Owens’ unguarded statements come down to two essential points: Agents won’t be able to secure the border unless the administration changes its policies and starts deterring aliens from entering illegally; and the only way to deter illegal entrants is to impose consequences on them, starting with detention and prosecution. Will the White House listen? Probably not.