BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — (9/9/19) The chief patrol agent in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector testified in federal court Friday that his agents were “overwhelmed” and lacked resources to properly house and care longterm for thousands of migrants this past spring and summer.
Chief Patrol Agent Rodolfo Karisch, who is named as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by 16 migrants against the federal government, repeatedly defended the actions of his agents in South Texas. He testified before Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr., in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Texas in Brownsville on Friday. Karisch described in rare public detail the challenges his agency faces and said a federal audit and report did not accurately characterize his sector.
During his 90 minutes of testimony, Karisch called the situation on the Southwest border a “crisis” of epic proportions, and said his agents “were never able to dig ourselves out” because of apprehensions numbering 1,700 per day in the sector at the time. Karisch said more resources, facilities and funding must be provided by Congress in order for his 3,000 employees in four South Texas counties to more quickly process and release detainees.
Karisch, as well as Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan; U.S. Customs Border Protection Acting Commissioner John Sanders; and U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost are defendants in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit in which plaintiffs are seeking more humane conditions for adults who are held by Border Patrol for over 72 hours.
On Thursday, seven migrants testified about the conditions at Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley during a hearing to request a preliminary injunction. One after another the migrants told similar stories about being held for weeks in Border Patrol facilities. The migrants described being relocated from facility to facility, not being allowed to shower, brush their teeth, or receive adequate medical care and and how they were denied access to lawyers or calls to their consulate representatives.
‘Perfect storm’ led to overcrowding
Karisch on Friday said his agents did tend to the medical needs of migrants, but said with 8,000 in custody in Border Patrol facilities that were designed to hold no more than 2,000, agents were simply “overwhelmed.”
A surge in migrants crossing the Southwest border also coincided with a federal government shutdown in February and furlough of workers, which led to decreased staff, resources and the ability to transfer migrants to long-term holding facilities run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Karisch said that the nine facilities in the South Texas counties of Hidalgo, Starr, Willacy and Cameron were never intended for long-term detentions and did not have enough resources to meet this onslaught of migrants. Karisch repeatedly reiterated that the Rio Grande Valley Sector is the busiest in the nation for migrant apprehensions.
“I will actually describe it as a perfect storm. We were coming out of a government shutdown and furlough, it took us so much time to amp up. The resources were just not there. We were overwhelmed and unable to process all of the unaccompanied migrants and family units,” Karisch testified.
OIG report ‘did not adequately represent’
Karisch on Friday also said a July 2 report on the Rio Grande Valley Sector by the Office of Inspector General “did not adequately represent their challenges.”
The report cited “dangerous overcrowding” at facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, including the Centralized Processing Center (CPC) in McAllen, which also is referred to as “Ursula” by locals because it is located on Ursula Avenue.
After the OIG report, numerous senators and congressional representatives, and even Vice President Mike Pence visited South Texas and toured the facility.
“When OIG came down in June, all of our facilities were to the limit. We were holding 8,000 people,” he said.
To reduce the number of detainees, Karisch said they began sending migrants via buses to Laredo at the rate of 300 per day. They also flew migrants on four flights to Del Rio, Texas, each week, and two weekly flights to San Diego, California. Altogether, they airlifted 500 migrants per week out of the Rio Grande Valley during that time period.
His agency also added sally ports, and added portable toilets to help conditions, he said.
And a new military-style canvas tent city near the base of the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge was constructed to hold thousands more. Read a previous Border Report story on the military-style Donna tent facility.
MPP policy led to migrant decrease
However, Karisch testified, it was the “wait in Mexico” policy the Trump administration enacted July called Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) which ultimately helped alleviate the overcrowding. Under the program, asylum-seekers must wait in Mexico for immigration court proceedings. The policy has been used since January in California and El Paso and was started in Brownsville around July 17.
Pointing in court to numerous graphs showing apprehension trends, the decrease in detainees since July in the RGV was notable. As of Friday, there were only 1,700 people total in custody in the sector, which is only 30 percent of capacity that the agency can hold, he testified. From Thursday to Friday, agents arrested 500 people, down from the average of 1,700 daily in May and June.
“We’re not in the business of holding people long-term. It shows the problems we encounter when we do that. We’re not built for that,” Karisch testified. “We have to start looking at the future so we have supplies in place in case we ever have to handle a surge like that again.”
One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Efren Olivares of the Texas Civil Rights Project, questioned the MPP policy.
“Now instead of being crowded in the detention facilities, the Trump administration is sending asylum-seekers to the streets of Matamoros,” he told Border Report on Thursday. “They’re sleeping in tents there as we speak. So that’s the solution of this government.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.