The Trump administration said Wednesday it will temporarily reassign several hundred border inspectors as beleaguered forces already stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border struggle to keep pace with the growing number of migrant families who are showing up at the border in poor health and turning themselves in to agents to request asylum.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said the reassignment of 750 border inspectors would mean longer waits at crossings as the busy Easter holiday nears but that it was necessary to address what he called "an operational crisis." The reassigned officers will process migrants, provide transportation and perform hospital watches for migrants who require medical attention. It is unknown when they will return to their regular duties.
"There will be impacts to traffic at the border," McAleenan said at a news conference in El Paso, Texas, which, after years of relative calm, has quickly emerged as the second-busiest corridor for illegal crossings after Texas' Rio Grande Valley. "There will be a slowdown in the processing of trade. There will be wait times in our pedestrian and passenger vehicle lanes."
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McAleenan spoke in front of the metal fencing that separates El Paso from Juarez, Mexico, after a delay that followed the apprehension of several migrants who had crossed a shallow spot on the Rio Grande nearby and turned themselves in.
Arrests along the Mexican border jumped to 66,450 in February, up 149 percent from a year earlier, while arrests in the Border Patrol's El Paso sector, which stretches across New Mexico and much of West Texas, were about eight times higher than they were a year ago.
March is shaping up to be even busier. McAleenan said the agency was on track to make 100,000 arrests or denials of entry during the month, up about 30 percent from February and about double the same period last year. About 55,000 will have arrived as families, including 40,000 children.
The commissioner said the border was at "a breaking point," language that is consistent with the administration's portrayal of a state of crisis. President Donald Trump last month declared a national emergency to obtain military funds for construction of his prized border wall.
The political polarization continued to play out Wednesday in El Paso as a small group of protesters erected an inflatable caricature of the president and shouted in Spanish "you are not alone" to the migrants being led away.
While arrests are still well below highs of the early 2000s, the surge of families and children has tested U.S. authorities.
Customs and Border Protection is taking more than 60 migrants to the hospital each day, McAleenan said. In the previous four days, he said infants have had 105-degree fevers, a 2-year-old suffered seizures in the desert and a 40-year-old man suffering organ failure refused surgery.
A few hundred yards from where McAleenan spoke, about 600 migrants were held in a football field-sized pen lined with concertina wire under the shade of a bridge that connects El Paso to Juarez. When reporters arrived, migrants lined the fence and some yelled they were hungry. Minutes later, a catering van delivered ham-and-cheese and picadillo sandwiches.
The 750 inspectors will be drawn from offices across the entire U.S. border. They will remain inspectors in name but will assist in border patrol, effectively shifting work hours from ports of entry to detention work.
Nationwide, Customs and Border Protection has 23,000 officers working at 328 ports of entry, including at airports around the country. But the agency has had the most trouble recruiting officers to work at southern border, where crossings were understaffed before the current surge of migrant families, largely due to low recruitment and high rates of attrition.
In Arizona, the ports where most of the country's produce comes through have struggled with low staffing, drawing the ire of trade organizations that say it slows down commerce.
In El Paso, drivers can wait for hours to cross back to the U.S.
The reassignment of border inspectors follows the Border Patrol's unusual move to close all highway checkpoints in its El Paso sector, which stretches across 268 miles (429 kilometers) in Texas and New Mexico.
U.S. officials say the checkpoint closures are a temporary measure to handle the increase in families and unaccompanied children entering the country illegally.
The orange traffic cones used to divert traffic off Interstate 10 into the canopy-covered border checkpoint west of Las Cruces, New Mexico, now block the entrance, signaling to drivers that they don't have to stop.
The Border Patrol operates 34 permanent checkpoints along the entire Mexican border and another 103 "tactical" stops, often cones and signs that appear for brief periods, the Government Accountability Office said in a 2017 report.
While checkpoints account for only a sliver of Border Patrol arrests -- 2 percent from 2013 to 2016 -- they also handled 43 percent of drug busts during that time, according to the report.
At a gun range operated by the City of Las Cruces and used by Border Patrol agents, grandmother and Picacho Gun Club volunteer Cindy Pollock said she first noticed the checkpoint closures Thursday.
She thought the agents might be off training. When she heard they were reassigned to process migrants, she wasn't surprised.
"There's only so many officers and there's nothing they can do," said Pollock, who believes the current wave of migrants draws resources away from anti-crime efforts. "My husband said `Boy, just think about how many drugs are getting through today."'
Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Astrid Galvan in Phoenix contributed to this story.