Will the Last Person in Central America Please Turn Out the Lights?

By Andrew R. Arthur on March 27, 2019

Just when I was convinced that the immigration emergency at the border could not get any worse, Texas Monthly makes clear that it has. Bottom line: In just the last five months, 0.47 percent of the population of Guatemala and 0.645 percent of the population of Honduras has been arrested along the Southwest border, stretching U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) resources to the point that Border Patrol highway checkpoints are being shuttered and CBP officers are being pulled from the ports of entry in order to handle the flow.

On March 23, 2019, that magazine published a shocking portrait of what is going on along and near the border between the United States and Mexico, captioned "Border Patrol Inland Checkpoints Shut Down So Agents Can Help Process Asylum Seekers". As that article reports:

The El Paso Border Patrol sector has temporarily closed its system of highway checkpoints as it struggles to cope with a record influx of families crossing the border and requesting asylum. The agents who usually staff the checkpoints will be redeployed to process and transport the asylum seekers, according to multiple sources who spoke to Texas Monthly on the condition they not be identified because they aren't authorized to speak publicly about the change.

"We were told to go ahead and close down all the checkpoints," one official said Saturday morning. Agents assigned to checkpoints were told they would be sent indefinitely to assist in efforts to process and transport hundreds of families and unaccompanied children crossing the border each day in El Paso, a surge that is overwhelming available resources. "It's really out of control. It's bad," the official said. A Border Patrol spokesman said the agency was preparing a statement on the checkpoint issue but as of Saturday evening the agency hadn't responded to Texas Monthly inquiries.

Southwest Border Patrol checkpoints are generally set up on major routes leading away from the border, as a second line of defense to allow CBP to interdict illegal migrants, drugs, and contraband that either were transported illegally between the ports of entry, or not seized at those ports. The Texas Observer reported in February 2018 that there are "[a]bout 18 permanent checkpoints up to 100 miles from the border — stretching from El Paso to Brownsville."

As Texas Monthly notes:

Most motorists pass through after a cursory citizenship question, but agents occasionally pull motorists over for more in-depth questioning. The primary use of the checkpoints in recent years has been drug seizures. Celebrities such as Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson and Fiona Apple were among those arrested at Border Patrol checkpoints in recent years for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In fiscal year 2018, the Border Patrol reported seizing 41,863 pounds of marijuana, 2,717 pounds of cocaine, 405 pounds of heroin, 6,366 pounds of methamphetamine and 200 pounds of fentanyl at its checkpoints.

Going through a checkpoint is almost a rite of passage (no pun intended) for anyone traveling along and away from the border. I have been through several, and even my son has gone through the checkpoint process. And to underscore the first point in the excerpt above, this is not generally a terribly intrusive or time-consuming process. As John Daniel Davidson explained in the Federalist: "As anyone who has been through a Border Patrol checkpoint knows, actual document checks are uncommon. Typically, the agent asks a brief couple of questions before sending one on one's way."

And to underscore the point in the excerpt about drug seizures, according to CBP statistics, already in FY 2019, the Border Patrol has seized 765 pounds of cocaine, 73 pounds of heroin, 2,519 pounds of methamphetamine, and 51 pounds of fentanyl at checkpoints. As I have previously testified, fentanyl is "a drug the Drug Enforcement Administration states is '30-50 times more potent than heroin and 50-100 times more potent than morphine.' Oxford Treatment Center identifies two milligrams as a lethal dose of fentanyl." Fifty-one pounds of the drug is therefore enough to kill 11,566,605 people, 100,000 more than live in Georgia.

Shutting down those checkpoints, therefore, presents a significant health and safety risk to the people of the United States. So why is that necessary? As Texas Monthly explains:

The Border Patrol's El Paso sector — which includes El Paso and Hudspeth counties in Texas and all of New Mexico — and the Rio Grande Valley sector have borne the brunt of the record surge of asylum-seeking families, mostly from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. From October through February, El Paso sector Border Patrol agents processed 41,670 members of family units and unaccompanied children who crossed the border illegally, most of whom sought out and surrendered to agents. In the Rio Grande Valley, that number reached 69,623 in the first five months of the fiscal year. Crossings in March are on pace to well exceed the record numbers of February, Border Patrol officials have said.

El Paso Border Patrol officials have said they've been taking custody of almost 600 migrants a day ... the past month, most walking across the Rio Grande in the city limits of El Paso, then walking toward the border fence that lies several hundred feet north of the international boundary, and waiting for Border Patrol agents to take them into custody. Because border detention facilities are past capacity and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has limited ability to hold families in detention, the migrants are processed, given a notice to appear in immigration court, then released to the nonprofit Annunciation House in El Paso while they make travel arrangements to join other family members in the interior of the United States.

The migrant surge is primarily being driven by a mass exodus from Guatemala and Honduras, countries riven by deep poverty, violence, government corruption and droughts believed to be linked to climate change. A stark picture emerges when you overlay Customs and Border Protection apprehension data with population estimates for the two countries. One of every 211 Guatemalans has been taken into custody crossing the U.S.-Mexico border between October and February; for Hondurans, it's one out of every 155. Those numbers are expected to grow as the weather warms over the next couple of months.

President Donald Trump was criticized in October 2018 for focusing on the then-caravan of migrants making their way from Central America. For example, as CNN put it in an article captioned "Trump's making the migrant caravan a political issue. Here are the facts":

President Donald Trump, in a series of tweets on Monday, claimed he would declare a "national emergency" over an issue that has frequently piqued his attention — migrant caravans moving toward the United States through Central America and Mexico.

His tweets come just weeks ahead of the 2018 midterm elections and he has emphasized immigration as a key issue, without evidence accusing Democrats of pushing for overrun borders in what appears to be a naked fear campaign aimed at turning out his supporters. Immigration was a key issue in the 2016 presidential race.

Note that this was a news article, not an opinion piece, and at the time there were 7,500 migrants in that caravan. The article included the following:

Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and the former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told CNN that the President's use of the term national emergency, and his potential subsequent declaration, is "a subjective judgment."

"It is certainly true that the numbers that have been reported in this group are larger than anything that we've seen before this from these countries concentrated in one group," she said.

However, she added that the reaction is "disproportionate to what's happening."

"I'm not saying it's not a genuine problem, but it's not like this is organized insurrection, in the way that its been characterized," she added.

I would not have portrayed that caravan as an "organized insurrection", but I wonder how the former INS commissioner would describe a situation in which 600 migrants per day were being apprehended in just one sector, or whether she would concur with the characterization of the current situation along the border as a "mass exodus from Guatemala and Honduras".

For comparison, however, consider the fact that the United States population currently stands at just over 328,627,000 people, according to the Census Bureau. Compared to the proportion of the Guatemalan population apprehended in the past five months along the Southwest border, 1,544,547 Americans would have had to have been caught seeking illegal entry elsewhere, greater than the population of Hawaii, to match entrants from that country in terms of percentage. Compared to Hondurans, it would be 2,119,644 Americans, greater than the population of New Mexico. And, if the number of illegal entrants apprehended per month follows past trends, there will be an even higher number monthly until the end of May (assuming it ebbs then). It is no wonder that current CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said on March 5 that: "The system is well beyond capacity and remains at a breaking point." Something needs to be done.

One ray of hope can be found in the following quote in the Texas Monthly article: "U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo ... is already looking at future appropriations to see if more incentive can be provided for Mexico and other Latin American countries to work more diligently to fend off the flow of migration from Central Americans." That would be helpful, but it would be even more helpful if Cuellar could convince the head of his caucus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that the situation at the border is critical, and that in addition to "incentives" to other countries, we need to plug the loopholes in our laws that are incentivizing this illegal migrant flow.

The current situation reminds me of a scene from the 1985 rom-com, road-trip movie, The Sure Thing. The two main characters (played by Daphne Zuniga (Alison) and John Cusack (Gib)) find themselves abandoned in a driving rainstorm on the side of the road. From IMDb:

Gib: [encounter[ing] a padlocked trailer while attempting to get out of the rain] It's locked! Good! This is very good! It's important that this place should have an air-tight security system ... in the middle of nowhere!

Alison: [digs through her bag] I might have a nail file. ... I have a credit card. I have a credit card!

Gib: Credit cards work on a completely different kind of lock.

[Alison]: No, you don't seem to understand. I have a credit card!

Gib: You have a credit card?

Alison: I have a credit card!

Gib: [relieved] You have a credit card.

Alison: [suddenly crestfallen] Oh. My dad told me *specifically* I can only use it in case of an emergency.

Gib: [sarcastically] Well, maybe one will come up.

That exchange perfectly encapsulates my view of the current attitudes in Washington, D.C., about the situation along the border: Congress would possibly act to stem the flood of migrants crossing the border illegally, but only "in case of emergency".

If one would just come up.