Mark Morgan, Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), was featured in an Immigration Newsmaker conversation hosted by the Center for Immigration Studies on December 20 at the National Press Club.
Director of Policy Studies
Center for Immigration Studies
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
JESSICA M. VAUGHAN: Good afternoon and thank you all for being here to today’s newsmaker interview. Today our guest is Mark Morgan, who is the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, which is one of the DHS agencies. It’s the largest law enforcement agency in the country, and brings in the second-highest amount of revenue of any law enforcement agency – and I’d venture to say probably a little more popular than the one that brings in the most, which I think is the IRS, but – (laughs). So thank you for being here.
ACTING COMMISSIONER MARK MORGAN: Of course.
MS. VAUGHAN: The acting commissioner has had a long and distinguished career in law enforcement, including – well, he was named to his present post in June of this year. And prior to taking the job of acting commissioner, he’s been chief of the Border Patrol, he’s been the special agent in charge of the FBI office in El Paso, so plenty of border experience. He’s had a number of roles in law enforcement, in intelligence and counterterrorism, violent crime, gang suppression, a lot of things that relate directly to his job today. And he’s been a deputy sheriff and a Los Angeles police officer. Not only that, he has an engineering degree and a law degree.
So it’s my great pleasure to welcome Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan. Thanks for being here.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Thank you. Thank you very much. And I have to say also a former Marine, so I have to get that in there, so.
MS. VAUGHAN: I had that one on my list. It just –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Oh, it’s OK. (Laughter.)
MS. VAUGHAN: Semper Fi.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Thank you. (Laughter.)
MS. VAUGHAN: So thanks for coming. And I want to let everyone know that I’m – Commissioner Morgan’s going to be in the hotseat for a while with my questions, but if you have questions that you would like to have asked please fill out the index cards that we are providing. And I’m going to go for maybe half an hour, 35 minutes, and then we’ll take some questions from the audience.
But I think I’m going to jump right in –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Of course.
MS. VAUGHAN: – with this topic that I think everybody wants to know about the most, is can you give us an update on what’s happening at the southwest border?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Sure. And I think when we talk about the southwest border, Jessica, we have to really put it in two pockets. One is the crisis with respect to immigration, and then the other is what I call – and that’s the security crisis. I think as of late, I think for understandable reasons, we really – our bandwidth is taken up talking about the immigration crisis, so let me start with that.
The drivers, really, the focus over the last year plus, has really been the migration flow from the Northern Triangle countries, specifically the families. And the reason why that’s been the – a focus is something I’ve talked a lot about, and that’s about our broken legal framework right now. Specifically, the Flores Settlement Agreement, which had a significant loophole, which said if you come to our country with a child we can only hold you for 20 days, it simply was not long enough to get through the immigration process. So that really was the genesis of catch and release. The Border Patrol, we would apprehend these families entering the country illegally and we would release them into the interior of the United States oftentimes without – within days. And so we really had to fix that.
So over the last six months this president, this administration, CBP along with our other partner agencies ICE and a host of others, we’ve really instituted a network of initiatives and policies and rules and regulations that really have given us the tools to close those loopholes. I’ll give you an example. So at the height of May we had 144,000 apprehensions in May alone. Six months later, 42,000 apprehensions. And we really, again, targeted that demographic, the Northern Triangle country family units, specifically that were coming in. Since –
MS. VAUGHAN: How do you know that’s not just seasonal?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: So the numbers will tell you. So seasonal – in fact, it’s ironic that the – in October, seasonally a lot of times the numbers go up, believe it or not.
MS. VAUGHAN: In the summertime, or the –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: In the – well, right now, the October – November/October timeframe seasonally, in some demographics, the number’s gone up. We have seen it steadily decrease. Again, for the past six months those numbers have steadily declined, even in those seasonal times where we’ve actually seen an increase in the previous years. And so what we’ve seen, too, specifically with the family units, again, from the height of May to the end of last month, six months, we saw an 85 percent reduction in families. So on that front we’ve made tremendous strides; again, closed those loopholes.
What we are seeing, though, is a change in the demographics, though. And you and I talked about this, and this – what happens often is – it’s not a surprise to us – is that the cartels and human smuggling organizations, they’ll change their what we call TTPs – tactics, techniques, and procedures. So they saw that we were making progress towards stemming the flow of illegal immigration from the Northern Triangle countries, really taking billions of dollars out of their pockets, and they shifted. So they’re shifting towards supporting additional migration from extracontinental countries as well as Mexican nationals. Now they’re sending out –
MS. VAUGHAN: Meaning far away, not just Central Americans or even Latin America.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Correct. Correct. I mean Indians, Africans, Haitians, Brazilians, I mean, the list goes on and on and on. That’s what we refer to as extracontinental, other than Northern Triangle countries.
MS. VAUGHAN: Do you have numbers on how many we are seeing that are extracontinental?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Yes. I mean, we’re seeing thousands of each of those groups. And we’re seeing – from this time last year we’re seeing an increase sometimes 2(00), 300 percent of what we saw last year. Now, overall those numbers relatively are fairly manageable. But when you start combining it, and then again you start seeing it as an increased issue, we need to get out in front of it.
Mexican nationals, specifically families, the human smuggling organizations are going to the families and telling them, hey, the initiatives they have, they don’t apply to Mexican nationals. You grab a kid, it’s going to be you passport into the United States. But I can assure you we’re taking the same process with the initiatives that we used to counter the flow in the Northern Triangle countries and we’re applying it to the extracontinental countries and we are applying it to Mexican nationals. In fact, last week – I mean, this week we started what we call IRI, interior repatriation flights. So we’re actually flying individuals now, Mexican nationals, into the interior of Mexico to other locations.
So overall what I refer to as right now where we’re as it we have all but ended catch and release specifically for the Northern Triangle countries.
MS. VAUGHAN: For the Northern – OK.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: For the Northern Triangle countries.
MS. VAUGHAN: Because it’s been reported that it’s been about – the remain in Mexico or Migrant Protection Protocol policies of having people who apply for asylum wait in Mexico for their proceedings, it’s been reported that that’s been applied to about 55,000. Is that individuals or household heads, or?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: All demographics.
MS. VAUGHAN: OK.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: So individuals, families. But yes, it’s been around 55,000 that we have found amenable for that program that are waiting in Mexico as they go through their due process immigration proceedings here in the United States.
MS. VAUGHAN: But there have been hundreds of thousands of arrivals who are family units from the Northern Triangle countries and elsewhere. What happened to the rest? I would estimate, what, 400,000 family units, I think, it’s been reported?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Yeah. And again, so you – so you go to the height of May of 144,000, again, 65, 70 percent of those were family units, families coming from the Northern Triangle countries. Again, over the last six months, because of the initiatives, we have reduced that flow by 85 percent, meaning they’re just not coming anymore.
And this is – this is a really important part, and this is one thing I’ve been trying to say, is for those individuals in the countries, stop listening to the cartels. Stop listening to the human smuggling organizations. They’re lying to you. They’re exploiting you. They’re getting rich off of your backs by exploiting these vulnerable migrants. And now, because of where we’re at, because of the initiatives and the tools we have, no longer is a child your immediate passport into the interior of the United States. We have all but shut that down. So I’m trying to tell these families do not listen to the cartels; they’re lying to you. It’s working. Again, a(n) 85 percent reduction.
MS. VAUGHAN: So today if a family arrives and – I mean, are they all asking for asylum even, or?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: No, no, no. And that’s a good point, too. Traditionally, they haven’t all asked for asylum. One, because of our broken system they didn’t have to. The Flores Settlement Agreement said we cannot retain you longer than 20 days regardless of whether you claimed asylum or not. And so that still holds now. Again, Congress – and I’ve said it and I’m going to continue to say it – we’re doing all this, this president and this administration, CBP is executing all these initiatives. Meanwhile, Congress has still failed to pass a single piece of meaningful legislation that would address this. And Jessica, they know what to do. They know what to do. It would take them 15 minutes, single piece of paper, and they could end probably 90, 95 percent of this immigration crisis that we’re in.
MS. VAUGHAN: What would that say, that single piece of paper?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: It would say three things. It would address the Flores Settlement Agreement, which says we can detain individuals longer than 20 days; we can detain them during their immigration proceeding, which takes on an average of 50 to 60 days.
In addition to that, we can also send children – unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle countries, we can send them back to their – to their families, from where they came. If you’re –
MS. VAUGHAN: In their home country.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: In their home country.
MS. VAUGHAN: But some of the families are here.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Some of the families are here, but some of the families are there. And Mexico – for example, Mexico or Canada, if you’re an unaccompanied child from Mexico or Canada, we can send you back to your families. If you’re from the Northern Triangle countries, we can’t; we have to keep you. That should be addressed by Congress.
And the last thing is the credible fear standard initially. There really is no standard. They’re coached what to say, they know what to say, and they’re found to have a positive credible fear only – and the majority of those are found not to be credible.
So those three things need to be fixed. I’d probably throw in there give ICE some more bed space and about 95 percent of the immigration crisis will be fixed.
MS. VAUGHAN: Which ICE did not get in the latest spending bill.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That’s correct. That’s correct.
MS. VAUGHAN: What did CBP get for this work?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: So we – one positive factor that we got in the spending bill was 1.375 (billion dollars) for the wall. That’s going to be significant for us. We’re going to be able to use that current funding to continue to build the wall, so that’s really significant for us, and one of – one of the tools. And I’m sure we’ll talk about that in a minute.
MS. VAUGHAN: Yeah. And I do want to come back to one thing with respect to the application of this network of policies. Since we were talking about the Migrant Protection Protocols, let’s just stick with that for a minute. I just want to reiterate, so this is going to apply to a family unit from the Northern Triangle, it’s going to apply to a family unit that arrives from Mexico?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: So no. So right now it’s not applying to Mexico, but we are in negotiations with Mexico to expand that. Because, again, as I started to explain, although we’ve addressed greatly, again, that illegal migration flow from the Northern Triangle countries, what we’re seeing now is an increase in the extracontinentals and we’re seeing an increase in Mexican nationals, single adults and families, of which those initiatives right now with Mexico aren’t being applied. But we’re working with Mexico to expand that.
We’re also working with the government of Guatemala and Honduras on the ACA, the Asylum Cooperative Agreement, to also expand that so that they will also receive Mexican nationals as well. And so we’re working with the countries.
You know, the ironic thing is right now we have other countries that are stepping up, seeing this as a regional crisis, addressing it as a regional crisis, and they’re actually doing more to help us than our own Congress is.
MS. VAUGHAN: Yeah, that’s an important statement.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: It is.
MS. VAUGHAN: What about – one last thing on the Migrant Protection Protocols, and that is what about the extracontinental families, people coming from Africa, Middle East, and so on? Are those – are they waiting in Mexico as well?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: It’s expanding. Right now what the current agreement is with Mexico is Spanish-speaking countries. But again, we’re in consultation with Mexico as the smuggling organizations, again, change their TTPs. We’re coordinating with Mexico, we’re giving them that information, and we’re asking for their assistance to expand that to accept extracontinental countries. And we’re confident that they’re going to agree to that and, as well, we’re going to have the same conversation – we are – with the government of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where we have those ACAs, for them to accept other demographics as well. And so we’re heading that direction.
MS. VAUGHAN: OK. So right now some of those would be allowed to enter, presumably detained in an appropriate custodial situation –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Correct. Correct.
MS. VAUGHAN: – and then from there possibly released if it can’t be done in 20 days.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Twenty days, correct, for families. That’s – yes, ma’am.
MS. VAUGHAN: OK. It was reported today by I believe it was AP that – or, no, excuse me, Reuters reported today that this announcement about interior repatriation that has been done often the past –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Before. It has.
MS. VAUGHAN: – and is now being launched again, that some of – that there’s the potential for having Mexicans go actually to Guatemala? Can you explain that?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Yes. And so, again, under the ACA, the genesis of that – and I think this is very important – the genesis is if someone has an asylum claim, what we’re trying to encourage are a couple of things. One is reach out and get assistance. If you have a legitimate asylum claim, you should be reaching out and trying to get relief in the first country you come to, right?
MS. VAUGHAN: Logical.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Logical. Don’t give your life’s savings to the cartels. Don’t listen to the cartels, that are lying to you. Don’t listen to the cartels and smuggling organizations, that are going to abuse you and treat you nothing better than a piece of trash, than a commodity.
Just the other day we apprehended a tractor trailer load of immigrants trying to illegally enter. They actually all had T-shirts on that had a letter spray painted on the T-shirts, and they had the same letter marked on their hands. I mean, they were marked like cattle. So what I’m trying to do is, don’t listen to those organizations. They’re going to treaty you like cattle. They’re going to treat you like a commodity. If you have a legitimate asylum claim, get relief in the first country. That’s the genesis behind the ACA.
And so we have the ability to apply that ACA to Mexican nationals as well. Again, we’re having those discussions with Guatemala to expand that to, again, share in this as a regional crisis. America is not the only country that borders Mexico. We should share the immigration crisis as regional partners, and that’s what Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are stepping up to do.
MS. VAUGHAN: And do you think that these other countries are well-equipped to handle those that might actually be bona fide asylum claims?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Well, if you think about it, one is we are working with them every single day to improve their capacity. We just released funding back to the Northern Triangle countries, millions of dollars specifically designed to improve their asylum capacity as well as their interior enforcement ability to go after the cartels and the smuggling organizations. But keep in mind during the height of the crisis the United States of America, we were overwhelmed. There’s no single country in the world that can handle the level and the volume and the height of crisis, not even the United States. That’s why we have to work together with the Northern Triangle countries, Mexico, and other countries to really address this as the regional crisis that it is.
MS. VAUGHAN: And the fact that we had policies in place that enabled and encouraged this flow of people and that had the effect or really enriching the criminal cartels, that’s an important issue with huge implications for Mexico as well, that it’s in their interest to try to address this, because it’s not just human smuggling. There’s the threat – the criminal threat of the cartels. They don’t just smuggle humans; they also smuggle drugs. Gang members are taking advantage of this. I think I read on your website your officers are apprehending something like 400-some MS-13 members a year, which is one a day, and that’s just one of the transnational gangs that has exploited this opportunity to take advantage of our policies to get here.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: And that’s – and, Jessica, so not only you’re right, and that’s just who we catch. And so that dovetails, good segue, into that second part that we don’t talk enough about, is the national security crisis. So when we talk about the crisis, again, it’s not just the immigration and humanitarian crisis; it’s dual. It’s the national security crisis as well.
One aspect of that is what you just said, gang members. We actually apprehended over at CBP over a thousand gang members, 23 different gangs. And again, that’s just who we apprehended. The human smuggling organization(s) and the cartels are also using the humanitarian effort to draw Border Patrol agents off the line. During the height, over 50 percent of Border Patrol agents were taken off the line to really care for kids and families. Well, what do you think the human smuggling organizations were doing? They were exploiting that. In fact, they were doing it by design. They would send groups and large caravans in one area so that the Border Patrol agents would go and address that; meanwhile, drugs –
MS. VAUGHAN: And be distracted.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: And be distracted. Over a thousand gang members. Drugs last year, CBP seized over 800,000 pounds of drugs. Think about that stat: 800,000 pounds. Air and Marine Branch, they contributed to, with other partners, another 300,000 pounds of drugs. The four hard narcotics – heroin, meth, fentanyl, cocaine – all those hard narcotics went up last year. Fentanyl, RGV alone – one sector out of nine sectors – seized 11 pounds. That’s enough to kill 2 million people in the United States. Last year alone, 68,000 individuals in this country died because of the direct result of overdose of illicit narcotics – 68,000 people. That’s more people than died in the entire Vietnam conflict.
And there’s another thing that I say. Every town, city, and state in this country is a border town, city, and state, and because mark my words, if you have a meth overdose in Ohio, for example, mark my words, that meth came from the southwest border. What Mexico is doing right now, they are able to produce meth, for example – which hast just skyrocketed up – faster, cheaper, and it’s more potent. And so a lot of times meth was manufactured in the United States; that’s going down. Mexico is creating these super labs in Mexico.
MS. VAUGHAN: We have laws that have discouraged it and made it much harder. But –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That’s right. That’s right. So when we talk about the crisis at the border, when we talk about the need for a wall as one tool, it’s not just about stemming the flow of illegal immigration. It’s about also stopping he drugs pouring into this country that killed 68,000 people last year.
MS. VAUGHAN: So, yeah, this affects every country in our –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Every.
MS. VAUGHAN: Excuse me, every community in our country as well.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: It does.
MS. VAUGHAN: And it’s an issue for Mexico, as well, in terms of corruption and the money that the cartels have to throw around.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Absolutely.
MS. VAUGHAN: How much of a threat are the cartels to the United States? A lot of people make the claim that there’s little risk of cartel activity overflowing into the United States because they’re afraid of U.S. law enforcement or, you know, a number of other reasons they give. Do you agree with that?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Well, it depends on how you shape that up. If you’re talking about violence, that’s one thing. I’ll talk about that in a second. But if you’re talking about cartel activity impacting this country, heck yeah. I mean, we just described the drugs pouring in, the 68,000 deaths. Cartel members don’t just operate in Mexico; they’re here in these United States. They operate stash houses. They have their network distributing drugs to every town, city, and state in this country.
MS. VAUGHAN: Working with gangs that are often –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Absolutely, absolutely, and I worked gangs for a long time. So absolutely. So cartel and human – and smuggling organizations are alive and well in Mexico and here.
Violence is another issue. Violence has not spilled over. Again, I was the special agent in charge in the FBI in El Paso. That city for many years was actually one of the safest cities of its size in America for many years. The violence in Mexico, really the majority of that is cartel against cartel. And this is what the American people really need to understand. Why is there so much violence in Mexico? Why are the cartels warring with each other for control over the plaza, control over the smuggling routes? Because it’s so profitable. It’s so profitable. It’s a – I mean, it’s a multibillion-dollar industry for them every single year. We estimate that the cartels, over $60 billion that they have. It’s unbelievable. And that’s another reason why we’re working with the government of Mexico to work on southbound operations, to try to stop weapons from going in there and also the illicit currency from going southbound as well. So the cartels are alive and well.
MS. VAUGHAN: I think – I saw a figure today, I think it’s $4 billion a year in revenue for the cartels from smuggling.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: And I think that’s a conservative estimate.
MS. VAUGHAN: Yeah. Yeah. And this is one reason we need a multifaceted approach to this. What do you think has worked? Has it been mostly the changing of our policies or the working with other countries? I mean, what is Mexico doing to address this influx of people and illicit goods?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: So I think it’s a D, all of the above. And again, we have to separate a little bit.
So on the – on the human smuggling side, on the illegal migration side, it really has been a combination. It’s been a combination of this president’s strategy, this administration’s strategy, the ability of CBP and ICE and other partner agencies to execute on those initiatives, as well as the cooperation of other countries – Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries. And we’re working with Panama and other countries as well.
But Mexico has definitely stepped up in unprecedented ways. You know, 26,000 troops. They’ve established a new national guard. They strengthened their southern border. Their apprehensions have almost doubled last year. They’ve strengthened the U.S.-Mexico border. And they have also strengthened their interior enforcement. Just back in May we were experiencing 40 to 50 large groups of individuals of a hundred or more. Those numbers went down. Last month I think we had two. So they’re definitely stepping up, and –
MS. VAUGHAN: Yeah, that’s a huge difference.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: It’s a huge difference. And so it really is all of that with respect to the illegal migration crisis.
On the drug crisis, we still have a ways to go. Again, 800,000 (pounds), right, seized, plus 300,000 (pounds) from Air and Marine. And that’s just what we seize. We know that volumes greater than we can probably even fathom are still getting through that border and making its way to every town, city, and state in this country.
MS. VAUGHAN: OK. Well, obviously, barriers would help in stopping people. How much wall has been built, you know, since –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Yeah. So, so far 93 miles. And I think this is important. There are a couple – address a couple of false narratives out there.
This is something that the experts have asked for. This is something that the Border Patrol agents and the leadership has asked for. This isn’t something that the president asked for. This president asked the experts what they needed and he’s delivering on what they have asked for.
And when you talk about the wall, it’s not just a wall; it’s a wall system. And it’s not just a wall system; it’s a part of a multilayer strategy of infrastructure, technology, and personnel. Everywhere along the southwest border where those three approaches have coalesced together effectively in a strategic location, it has absolutely made an impact both on the illegal flow of migration as well as drugs and bad people, every single place that that has been implemented. And we have the data and we can show that. And now –
MS. VAUGHAN: I’ve seen it. It works.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: It does. It absolutely works. And again, we have the data.
Now, with the new wall system, it’s not just a physical barrier. It has integrated lighting, integrated technology and access roads. All those things that the Border Patrol agents and the leadership specifically asked for, that’s all going into this wall system. And I can say without hesitation, without doubt, every mile of new wall that’s being built, this country is more safe because of it, because it absolutely increases the Border Patrol’s operational capacity to be able to do what they need to do. It’s about impedance and denial. Is it – is it going to be impenetrable and not be able to be overcome? No. But it is going to deny and impede. And again, if you have the technology and personnel, you put all those together, personnel come in and do the apprehension.
A good part of that, too, I want to make sure, though, technology is a huge part of this. So we need more technology, too. But again, at the end of the day we say it kind of tongue in cheek, but it’s serious, is that, you know, technology can’t make an arrest, so you still need – you still need agents. And again, you need –
MS. VAUGHAN: But you need fewer.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Right. Right, exactly. But technology is an important part of that, as well. All three of those things are very important. It’s not just one or the other. It’s all three together in strategic locations, and that’s what we’re doing.
MS. VAUGHAN: I saw in your recent testimony before a Senate committee that you mentioned that there were an estimated 150,000 who evaded our security at the border. How did you come up with – how do you know?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: And I actually think that’s a conservative estimate. We call them gotaways. It’s not really a scientific method. It’s not super complicated. I’ll give you an example. A Border Patrol agent may go to an area where there was no wall system, there was no technology, and they see footprints in the – in the ground across the border, right, and they can physically count the footprints, or they see tire tracks. So it’s not really complicated or scientific, but they’re pretty good at that. Called also cutting sign. Border Patrol agents, they’re experts at that, at being able to determine just by looking at footprints and et cetera who and what crossed. And so throughout the southwest border, all 2,000 miles, we estimated at least 150,000. I think that’s conservative. I think it’s higher.
MS. VAUGHAN: And we assume those are not families seeking – or, you know, who are going to say that they fear return. These are the people who don’t want to be entered into our system.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: So that’s exactly right, Jessica, and that’s another element, again, we don’t talk enough about. The majority of the families that come across and the unaccompanied children, when they make their ways to the border, a lot of the time they just sat down and wait for Border Patrol agents, and it’s not adverse. It’s a very safe exchange and apprehension and processing. Those gotaways, those you’re absolutely right, they’re the ones that are running. Why are they running, right? Those aren’t the good ones.
And that’s – when we’re having this discussion, we need to be intellectually honest through our discussion, and not every single person that tries to illegally enter this country is a good person. Now, they’re not all bad either, but they’re not all good. And when we’re talking about that, we have to be honest about that. Again, a thousand gang members caught. We also have caught pedophiles, rapists, murders. Now, you know, and a lot of people will say, well, those numbers are small. Well, how many is acceptable? How many? How many – how many rapists, how many murderers, how many pedophiles are acceptable? How many gang members? How many MS-13 members are acceptable for us to allow into this country? That’s the question we should be asking.
From my perspective, law enforcement for a lot of decades trying to safeguard this country, the answer is easy. It’s zero. That’s why we need to strengthen our borders. That’s why we need the wall, along with other things.
MS. VAUGHAN: So Customs and Border Protection officers, especially the Border Patrol, have in recent times been subject to a lot of disparagement, been vilified, been accused of abusing authority. What do you say to those who have said that officers routinely are overzealous, that their mission is inherently inhumane? How do you answer those –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: I say it’s a lie. I’d say it’s a lie. I’d say that the people that say that don’t know what they’re talking about. The people that say that have not been down to the border. The people who say that have not actually seen Border Patrol agents and officers do their job. I have.
Let me give you a couple of facts – not hyperbole, not emotion, although I do get emotional about this because I know that they’re lying about the men and women of CBP. Four thousand nine hundred rescues last year – 4,900 rescues that were –
MS. VAUGHAN: Rescues. Not apprehensions, rescues.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Rescues. Right. Right. That’s a good point, right? Not apprehensions; rescues by Border Patrol agents and officers. So they saw somebody in need. They didn’t stop to say, wait a minute, are you trying to illegally enter this country? No, they didn’t ask that. They didn’t ask, hey, what’s your nationality? No, that didn’t happen. What they saw is somebody, a human being, in need, and they immediately went into action with respect to their training and what’s in their DNA to help and protect people, and they risked their own lives 4,900 times.
Let me give you another stat that’s factual. Healthcare. We average between 70 to 80 hospital visits just along the southwest border every day.
MS. VAUGHAN: A day.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: A day. So that means we got somebody in, we did a medical screening and a medical evaluation, and were able to determine right away that it exceeded our organic medical capability, and we immediately – immediately – took them to the proper EMS or medical facility locally there.
Seventy to 80 times a day, 4,900 rescues. That’s who the men and women are. When we have individuals, including our own political leaders, lie and say stuff like we’re running “concentration camps,” that’s a lie. When they say the Border Patrol agents are having people drink out of toilets, it’s a lie. And I do get frustrated on that.
And what I would say to anybody, come on down. Come on down. These are – these are mothers, brothers, fathers, and sisters. I’ve been there. I’ve seen a Border Patrol agent kneel down and talk to a 7-year-old girl holding the hands of her 9-year-old brother who came here alone, who suffered at the hands of the smuggling organizations all the way here, and kneel down in front of them, talking to them in Spanish, treating those two kids as if they were their own kids. I’ve seen that. Anyone who says otherwise I’ll question, have you been there and really seen it?
MS. VAUGHAN: This is probably a good time for us to plug our annual border tour, where we do give people the opportunity to go down and see it. We think it’s important for people –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: It is.
MS. VAUGHAN: – to see for themselves what’s going on, to understand the issues better.
So I want to touch on a couple of other things before we open it up to some of the questions. Not all illegal immigration is people entering surreptitiously at the border. Some people come in on visas and overstay.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That’s right.
MS. VAUGHAN: In 1996, Congress enacted a requirement that the government enact a biometric entry-exit screening program. It took until 2004 to get the first part of that done, and the agency – DHS – did it very well. It’s been very effective, called US-VISIT, where we started collecting biometrics upon entry, comparing them to the fingerprints collected at the time they had asked for a visa, but not much has happened since 2004. And Congress has passed this requirement I think six or eight times. Where are we on establishing a comprehensive entry-exit system? We don’t have it at land, where most people come from. We are getting passenger manifests, so we can start to know how many people are leaving. Can you update us on that system?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Sure, I can, and it’s a good point. I think there’s two good points. One is, is that – because there’s a lot of privacy issues and a lot of groups that have been out there very negative towards this, and this was a mandate as you just described, and this is a mandate that’s been out there a long time.
I will give you one, I think, reason – not excuse, but I think a justifiable reason. One reason why the biometrics have been so slow is the technology just has not been there. It just hasn’t been there. In fact, the last five years, the industry standard says that the technology has 12 times better than it was just five years ago. And so I would caution some people when they’re talking about the data, make sure the data’s about six months old because if you’re using data longer than that it’s probably bad, outdated data. The strides we’re making in the efficiencies of this have increased.
Now, for us, CBP, we are actually continuing to make progress. So let’s talk about airports, both exit and entry. So we’ve expanded that to 16 airports, exit-entry, 26 airports –
MS. VAUGHAN: Biometric exit?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Yes. Biometrics.
MS. VAUGHAN: It’s 16 airports now?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Sixteen airports, and it’s working. But here’s a key –
MS. VAUGHAN: For all travelers? International or –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: International. International travelers –
MS. VAUGHAN: OK. Not –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: – at those airports, specific airlines. So even the airports we’re doing that, it’s not for all airlines. But we’re working, and we’re – I think right now we have an additional 29 airports, give or take a couple, that we continue to work with to improve.
And so if you – if you – and right now I think another key element to this is – what I like to say we do is not facial recognition because recognition takes on a different kind of term. Really, what CBP is doing is facial comparison.
MS. VAUGHAN: That one-to-one comparison.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That one to one. That one to one. And that’s a very important distinction. So we actually have a database, right, a manifest where we have those photos, and we actually compare that one to one.
MS. VAUGHAN: Like, is this the person who was issued the visa in whatever country they’re coming from.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Correct. Correct. That’s exactly right, Jessica. Because I think sometimes when you look at facial recognition you’re thinking some sort of surveillance program. That’s not what we’re doing.
And think about this. The basic concept is instead of taking the comparison manually to a human being, which is failed and flawed – we’ve done the percentages – we’re just taking that ability and making it electronic. It’s more efficient, it’s a heck of a lot faster, and it’s more accurate. We have put millions and millions through this new biometric facial comparison process at a 98 to 99 percent accuracy rate. So it’s definitely effective.
And like I said, the technology is improving, you know. Every single year, exponentially that technology is improving. And I think we’re probably get – we’re going to get to a place where we’re darn near 100 percent being accurate in that facial comparison.
MS. VAUGHAN: And I have to say, having talked to many in the private sector in this industry, a lot of people think the technology actually is there, but this is another situation where Congress has not come through with the money that the agency needs to proceed, either.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That’s exactly right, too. What we’re also doing, though, is we’re actually working with the airports, too, and the airlines for them to work with us to fund that ability as well, and we’re making progress on this.
On the land side, we actually have instituted that. So we piloted it in a couple areas. In 2020 we’re going to expand it to four areas on the southwest border where we’re actually doing –
MS. VAUGHAN: The largest, or –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Yes, we’re looking at, obviously, the flow. And so we’re actually instituting that right now, so we’re open to expanding that.
MS. VAUGHAN: That’s important because –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: It is.
MS. VAUGHAN: – that’s where most people enter, is over a land border, and we don’t do any kind of biometric matching now –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That’s right.
MS. VAUGHAN: – for the millions of people who cross. We collect it in the border crossing cards, but we don’t use the information to a great extent, so.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Correct. That’s right. And just a short time period we’ve done it at the land, we’ve already caught what we call imposters, numerous imposters, and we’ve done it at the airports as well.
MS. VAUGHAN: All right. Well, I have one last topic that I want to hit before we move on, and that is the state of New York recently implemented what I consider to be the most egregious law. That not only allows the issuance of driver’s licenses to illegal aliens and others who can concoct an identity, but also greatly restricts access of every immigration enforcement agency to their motor vehicle databases. This was something new. I’m not aware of this occurring any other state.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: The first. You’re right.
MS. VAUGHAN: And New York is a border state. I know that you are aware of the law and the problems. Can you explain how important this is and why this is going to impact CBP?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Yeah. So first of all, it is –
MS. VAUGHAN: And our safety.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: It is very important. And I’ll tell you, it’s – I can’t have enough strong reaction. It’s reckless. It’s irresponsible. It’s politics at its worst. I’m telling you – I’m telling the American people that this policy by New York will absolutely make this country less safe. And it’s not just confined to New York; a lot of people just have a fundamental misunderstanding.
You have a car, you don’t just stay in New York, right? You travel anywhere in this country. And so we’re going to come across people now that we run their plate – think about this. You could be – you could be in Los Angeles. You could be in South Central Los Angeles and have a New York plate, and a police officer’s going to pull behind you, run the plate, and they’re going to get nothing back – nothing back. You’re going to have a driver’s license –
MS. VAUGHAN: It says restricted access, I think.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Restricted access.
MS. VAUGHAN: Sorry, Charlie.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That’s right. I mean, think about this. From a law enforcement perspective, I try to break it down as simplistic as I can. Anytime you take a legitimate law enforcement tool away from a law enforcement entity, think about that: you’re reducing their ability to safeguard this country every single time you’re taking away a tool. That’s exactly what this – has happened. And it’s being driven by politics. It’s reckless, it’s irresponsible, and this country will be less safe.
And let’s also add I also believe it’s actually against the law. I mean, under the INA – the Immigration and Nationalization (sic; Nationality) Act – there’s actually a policy that said a state cannot institute a law or policy that counters our ability to do our job. And think about this, they –
MS. VAUGHAN: It says that in any way restricts the exchange of information.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: In any way restricts the exchange of information, that’s exactly right. And this law specifically, not only does it talk about any entity with immigration, but it also mentions CBP and ICE. It’s purely political, and it’s irresponsible.
MS. VAUGHAN: Right. I don’t think they’re restricting the state of New Jersey or –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Correct. Correct. Correct.
MS. VAUGHAN: – you know, any other – the FBI.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That’s exactly right, exactly right.
MS. VAUGHAN: Well, what is the federal government going to do about it?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Well, I can tell you is that from the moment that that happened I have been engaged in discussions at a very high level. We are absolutely looking at all options, both within DHS and also within components of CBP. I’ve asked my folks to take a hard look at this: What are the options that we can do to make sure that we close this loophole in any way within our current legal framework? And I’m going to push hard to make sure that we counteract this horrendous, irresponsible, and reckless law by the state of New York.
MS. VAUGHAN: OK. Thank you. All right. Well, no shortage of questions here.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: I bet not. (Laughter.)
MS. VAUGHAN: It’s a pretty big stack, so it may take me a while to go through some of these. Here’s one.
Now that the numbers of Guatemalans crossing into Mexico are down, what are the U.S. expectations for the Mexican national guard deployment on that border – I assume their southern border – in 2020?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: So I think that’s a good question, and we’re just going to have to continue to watch that. If you look over history, what we’ve experienced is every single time we let off that proverbial gas pedal, the cartels and human smuggling organizations, they take advantage of that. So we have to make sure that we’re sharing information, sharing intelligence, and we maintain a steady state to ensure that they still have a force adequate to handle the current flow.
But this is very important. Although we have addressed specifically what we kind of sought out to do initially, the families from the Northern Triangle countries – and again, since May that’s gone down 85 percent, overall the flow has gone down 70 percent – we’re still at crisis numbers. We’re still averaging between 1,400 and 1,500 daily. If you remember former Secretary Jeh Johnson – I was chief of the Border Patrol under him – he said and he said back then a thousand was a bad day. He’s right; a thousand’s a bad day. We’re still at 1,4(00) to 1,500. So we’re still at crisis levels. So although we’ve made tremendous strides, we’re not done yet. So Mexico needs to continue that posture for the foreseeable future.
MS. VAUGHAN: And as you alluded to before, we still need to address some of these problems in our laws –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That’s right.
MS. VAUGHAN: – that you described.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Well, so that’s a key, too, and I think maybe that’s part of what this question’s going to as well, is that regardless of how great Mexico’s stepping up and the Northern Triangle countries, at the end the United States, we cannot rely on other countries to fix our broken system. It’s not – to have a durable, lasting solution to fixing our current legal framework, Congress has to act. And they’ve failed to do so, and they need to. Regardless of what Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries do, it’s not durable, it’s not lasting. That’s what we need Congress to do.
MS. VAUGHAN: Are there restrictions on the funding that you have for next year that are going to –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Yes. Every single time we get funding, regardless of what pocket that funding comes, generally there are some restrictions that come with that. The good news is the restrictions will not impede our ability to build wall. That 1.375 (billion dollars), we already long ago had that identified where it would go, what the strategic need was. So we’ve already had discussion with the Army Corps and we’re already on our way to using all part of that 1.375 (billion dollars).
MS. VAUGHAN: There was a story on NPR this morning talking about some of the hurdles for CBP in acquiring land and so on. Do you think that that is going to get in the way of getting the, what, 450-some miles done in the next year?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: No. I mean, land acquisition is always a challenging part of it. It’s that part that you have to get done first before you can build, obviously. But no, what really stops us, what’s really detrimental, is the lower – judicial activism of lower courts. We just got enjoined by a lower court for using DOD funding. That’s what hurts us. That’s what causes more challenges for us. But I can tell you, with this new funding that came I’m absolutely confident not only are we going to, you know, get to somewhere between 4(00), 450 miles that are built, but I think we’re actually going to exceed that. I think we’re going to have more miles either under contract, being built, or ready to be built even exceeds the 450 by the end of 2020.
MS. VAUGHAN: Where is most of it going?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Really, it’s going on all areas along the southwest border. So what we’ve done is the Border Patrol has done a really good job of coming up with kind of a border security implementation plan that really identifies the highest priorities. The challenging part is that changes, right? Anytime that we got to the cartels and we shut down one area, we call it the balloon effect; they just go to another area. And so we’re constantly reevaluating the threat area and we’re constantly changing where strategically we need the infrastructure and the technology and personnel. But right now that 450 miles was identified as the top 450 strategic miles that we needed. So I’m confident we’re going to get that, and I think we’re – like I said, we’ll have more under contract or being built by the end of 2020.
MS. VAUGHAN: Is some of it going into the Rio Grande Valley? Because that’s –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Yes. Right now we have panels going into the Rio Grande right now.
MS. VAUGHAN: OK. And there were accounts that identified that the flow was increasing in certain other areas at the border – as you said, that balloon effect – into Arizona, for example. And in that situation it was also because the remain in Mexico policies were not in place yet in Arizona. So how do you respond?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That’s right. So it’s a very key point because the human smuggling organizations, they know our laws better than most Americans know our laws when it comes to immigration, and they also know where we’re instituting certain initiatives. At that time MPP was not being initiated in Arizona. We hadn’t expanded there. So those smuggling organizations were broadcasting out to everybody this is where you need to go in. Since then we’ve shut that down. We expanded that. But it just shows you how adept they are and how flexible and resilient they are with changing their TTPs.
MS. VAUGHAN: Yeah, and the price has gone up. That’s always a good sign –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That’s right.
MS. VAUGHAN: – whether it’s the human smuggling or the drug smuggling prices.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: That’s right.
MS. VAUGHAN: You alluded to the Corps of Engineers. Here’s a question. Why does CBP have to use the Army Corps of Engineers to build the wall? Why can’t they contract direct? Meaning you, I guess, not the –
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Right. So there’s a couple nuances there. But you’ve got to remember some of the funding we’re using, the DOD funding we’re using, it actually has to be specifically for military projects. And so the majority of the funding we have right now is DOD-related funding, so it just makes sense to use the Army Corps of Engineer(s) as the overall contractor. But they’re subcontracting out with, you know, companies with – throughout the United States, just as we did – just as we would do. But that’s the main driving force behind it. And to be quite honest, they’re better at it. They’ve done this before. I mean, it’s part of what they do. It’s the core of the Corps’ job, right?
MS. VAUGHAN: All right. Is it really possible to control the border without fundamental change to our asylum law?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: So that’s a good question. And my answer is there’s a difference between control of the border – so yes, we can get to a position where we have operational capacity to be able to interdict what’s coming to the border. The challenge is addressing the flow. That is addressed by Congress. So look, if we continue to have the loopholes, we could continue to have a million people come to the border. That doesn’t change my want and need to be able to have that control, that operational control of the border. Whether I have a thousand coming in a day or I have 10,000 coming in a day, I still want the same operational control and the capacity to be able to apprehend and interdict whatever comes to the –
MS. VAUGHAN: And identify who’s coming.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: And identify. What we need Congress to do is pass and fix those loopholes so less will try to come. Those loopholes is what’s driving more to come.
So I want both. I want to have operational security of the entire border and I want Congress to do their job to stem the flow to make our job a little bit easier protecting this country.
MS. VAUGHAN: That relates to this question. In May and June Congress was complaining about, quote/unquote, “kids in cages” – in other words, children detained in CBP custody. What role did Congress play in that – in that event?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: So back in 2015, when the – those facilities were built – which, by the way, I absolutely object to the term “cages.” But back when those facilities were built, the role that Congress played back then, they were thanking us. They were thanking us, right, because we had this onslaught of unaccompanied children that were coming in and the Border Patrol facilities are not designed for children. They have a holding area with a concrete step and an open toilet. Those facilities are designed for single adults to be hold for – held for a very short period of time, processed, and then removed. That’s the genesis. That’s the core of the mission and how we operated, and the facilities worked to function like that.
Then all of a sudden we saw this influx of kids. And everybody – including the Border Patrol, who are mothers and fathers – said these are not the conditions that these children should be in. And so what did they do? We spent a lot of money, they scrambled fast, and they built these facilities specifically for families and kids. And back then including Congress was applauding that, saying wow, it’s incredible how fast you were able to build these facilities. That’s the role they played back then. And that’s why I get so frustrated now.
And if you look right now – so there’s chain-link fence in there. If you think about that for a second, we have all kinds of demographics. We have – we have babies that are coming in all the way up to 17-year-old kids. Some of them have a mother. Some of them have a father. All these different ages.
MS. VAUGHAN: Some of them have a rented mother or father.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Some of them have a rented mother and father, exactly. And so, like, you don’t want to put a 14-year-old male in the same area as a 6-year-old female, right? So they scrambled around. And the reason why there’s chain-link, so security we could see through, right, to make sure to provide adequate protection and attention for these individuals. That’s how that happened. And it was effective, and it worked.
Now, fast forward. Do I want to have facilities that do not have chain-link fence in them? Yeah, absolutely I do, and I think that’s fair. And we’re moving towards that right now.
MS. VAUGHAN: All right. In your view, what is the number-one reason we must enforce our immigration laws: protect American workers from unfair competition, protect American taxpayers, national security, or to prevent the entry or reentry of criminals?
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: So there’s a couple ways for me to say – first of all, I would say D, all of the above. But let me tell you just my response from a law enforcement professional because that’s the role that I have in here right now.
To me it’s about two things. One, and first and foremost, it’s about the rule of law. We have to enforce the rule of law. If the American people don’t like the current laws, don’t picket CBP, don’t picket ICE; go talk to Congress and have them change the law. So right now the law is the INA, the Immigration and Nationalization (sic; Nationality) Act. That is the law that we are upholding and enforcing, that rule of law.
The second thing is to maintain the integrity of the system. If you don’t maintain the integrity of the system, then you have no system at all, and that’s the second priority.
The third priority absolutely is to safeguard and protect the American people. That’s why when I say I want the wall, it’s not a political statement for me; it’s from a law enforcement perspective. It’s having the honor to be in this position and give the tools – the most effective tools – to the men and women of the Border Patrol that they know they need to do – have and that they’ve asked to safeguard this country. That’s what it’s about.
MS. VAUGHAN: All right. And this will have to be our last question. Who is subject to the deal with Guatemala on the deportation flights? And they’re asking is it only people from El Salvador and Honduras or Mexicans, and are agents being told to carry out this policy.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Yes, and so a couple things. We talked a little bit about it before.
So the initial agreement is to start with Honduran and El Salvadorans. That’s where to start. But it’s effective right now. Guatemala’s doing a really good job of having an effective system to be able to handle the flights coming in, and now we are talking to them, expanding it to other demographics, specifically Mexicans. But we continue to have dialogue to expand that to extracontinental countries as well.
And again, it goes back to the fact that this is not just a United States government problem, right? It’s all our problems. Our world is global. Our issues are global. Our solutions should be global. It shouldn’t just be the United States. So yeah, we’re looking to expand that across the board to as many demographics as we can.
MS. VAUGHAN: All right. Well, thank you so much for submitting to this. It was very helpful to hear your responses and your statements. And thank you all for coming today, and I hope you will watch our website for the next newsmaker event that we have in the near year. Happy new year!
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: Thank you.
MS. VAUGHAN: Thank you very much.
ACTING COMM. MORGAN: You bet. Thank you. Thank you.