On a trip to Tucson last week, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus sat down with the Arizona Daily Star to talk about the end of Title 42, apprehending drugs at the border, accountability within the agency, migrant deaths at the border and more.
Planning for anything
As the end of Title 42 approaches — the public health policy that has been used to quickly expel migrants from the country since the early days of the pandemic — many have been asking how the federal government is going to deal with a possible influx of migrants.
The Center for Disease Control announced the policy will end on May 23, though numerous states have sued the administration in an attempt to keep the policy in place.
The number of migrants apprehended at the border reached record highs in March. One reason for the high numbers: People expelled under Title 42 often make multiple attempts to get across the border.
Customs and Border Protection has been planning for the end of Title 42 for a while, Magnus told the Star.
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In response to calls for a plan, the Department of Homeland Security released a 20-page memo on April 26 outlining steps they would take to: increase resources; increase processing efficiency to mitigate potential overcrowding and burden on surrounding border communities; provide additional resources to nonprofits that receive migrants; go after human smuggling organizations; work with nations to deter migration; and implement consequences like removal, detention and prosecution to people who have entered the country illegally.
Migrants removed under Title 42 don’t face legal consequences as many do under the pre-existing immigration law, Title 8. As the government stops using Title 42, they will revert back to using Title 8, which Magnus says is more effective.
“It is a better strategy for dealing with immigration issues,” he said. “It provides for enforcement consequences, which are sometimes appropriate. It provides for a path for asylum seekers. There are a number of components that I think in many cases, our agents and officers are going to feel better suited to meet the needs that we’re dealing with.”
Tucson has community partners in place to attend to the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers, including the City of Tucson, Pima County and Catholic Community Services, which runs the Casa Alitas Welcome Center for migrants.
“We have some strong foundational sort of underpinnings to deal with migration flow here in the Tucson area,” he said. “I was actually proud to be part of some of that when I was a police chief here.”
As well, the Tucson Sector is on the cutting edge in terms of technology and resources, Magnus says.
“So I don’t think we’re going to see any huge, dramatic changes in terms of how this impacts the Tucson community,” he said. “But we’re planning for pretty much anything.”
DHS’s plan includes being prepared to hold about 18,000 people in CBP custody, up from 13,000 at the beginning of 2021. And the government has doubled its ability to transport migrants, with flexibility to increase further.
The plan also includes medical support and COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including testing and administering vaccines at 24 CBP sites by May 23, building on the existing vaccination program for those in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
CBP also has the ability to move people from one area to another for processing if one area is being overwhelmed, which could mean people being moved both in and out of the Tucson Sector, Magnus said. This process is already in place and was used earlier this year when migrants were being sent to Tucson from Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector in Texas.
As apprehensions have climbed to the record of 249,000 in March, of which 27,200 were in the Tucson Sector, CBP officers have gotten used to working under challenging conditions and the agency has learned from past missteps. Still, the system is greatly strained with the number of daily encounters, Magnus says. An average of more than 7,800 migrants per day were apprehended at the Southwest Border during April, according to DHS.
But Magnus says he thinks CBP is better now at coordinating with other agencies and has done a better job planning.
“The border is not homogenous, so even what the impact of Title 42 going away means to someplace in Texas is probably different than what it means to folks here in Tucson,” he said. “But I think one of the things that’s important to understand is that, first of all, we already have some really good resources here in Tucson — Casa Alitas and others are really going to continue to be key partners for us. No matter what route we take, in terms of whether it’s Title 42 or Title 8, we have strong foundational underpinnings to deal with migration flow here in the Tucson area.”
‘Sometimes helping is not helping’
Some Republican-led states, including Arizona, have invested resources in their own border security measures.
States should decide what is right for them based on what is going on at their border and within their communities, but the best way states can be a partner in border security is by facilitating communication and coordination of resources along with the federal government, Magnus said, adding that state governments should recognize they are not the immigration authorities.
“They’re not the Border Patrol; they’re not the officers we have the ports of entry,” he said. “Sometimes helping is not helping. I understand that there can be an intention to help address a problem or respond to a concern, but it is really important that we coordinate with each other so the outcomes don’t turn out to be something that makes a situation worse.”
Migration can be ‘horrific’ journeys
One of the pillars of the plan DHS put out in regards to the approaching end of Title 42 is deterring migration, working with nations throughout the Western Hemisphere.
One part of that is DHS, the State Department and other federal agencies are partnering with other countries on measures such as mirrored patrols, tracking migration patterns, working to address the larger picture of what has to happen in these various countries and to counteract misinformation from human smugglers, including that the termination of the Title 42 does not mean that the U.S. border is open, Magnus said.
“There is a real effort to engage with our partners in Central and South America to look at, first of all, what are things that can be done that will help people stay in their home country, because I think most people, if they had the economic wherewithal and felt like there were opportunities for them, they would want to stay in those places,” he said.
The increase in migration to the United States is consistent with trends across the globe. There are more people displaced today in the Western Hemisphere and the world than any time since World War II. Rising levels of violence and worsening economic and political situations, exacerbated by both the pandemic and in some cases climate change, are driving more people from their homes, from Mexico all the way to Brazil.
Magnus acknowledges that people are going to continue to leave those situations and countries but says it’s important to warn them about the dangers of the journey and being taken advantage of by human smugglers.
“You’re trading one awful thing for something that’s arguably worse,” Magnus said. “You’re giving up your life savings. You’re being taken on these journeys that are just horrific.”
Many migrants end up owing human smugglers thousands of dollars once they reach the border, which often takes people an increasing number of years to pay back.
Last month, officials from both sides of the border gathered in the Tucson Sector to hold a news conference on the dangers of crossing the border.
This is bigger than just a problem for the United States, Magnus says. Higher migration numbers has also had a profound impact on Mexico, which therefore also had an interest in using their leverage to influence some of their southern neighbors. But any changes will take time, he said.
“Unfortunately, the geopolitical dynamics in the Western Hemisphere, and frankly, across other parts of the globe are complicated,” he says. “They didn’t happen overnight; they’ve been made worse by things like COVID, by things like the changing world economy that puts some countries at a much greater advantage than others. Terrible environmental issues, earthquakes, changes in political leadership in certain countries — I mean, you could go on and on. These are not quick-fix challenges.”
As we go into the hottest time of year, an increasing concern is that more migrants will die while crossing the border in the Arizona desert.
Over the past 20 years, the remains of more than 3,900 migrants have been found in Southern Arizona, though the actual number of deaths is likely much higher. The yearly number of deaths has been increasing, with 215 sets of remains found in 2021, as the journey across the desert has only grown more deadly, due in part to barriers and enforcement policies pushing migrants into more remote areas.
“I think in the short term, one of the things that definitely we can do is say, ‘Don’t take this trip. This cannot end well. Don’t put your life in the hands of these individuals who would exploit you in every imaginable way,’” Magnus said. “This is key that we have to get this word out. We have to be more effective about using social media. We have to be more effective about just getting the word spread.”
Besides trying to get the word out about how dangerous the journey is and deploying agents to respond to 911 calls, another tool are rescue beacons, which are placed in the desert where people cross more frequently and can be seen from far away. Mangus said CPB is deploying more rescue beacons as one strategy to cut down on the number of deaths.
Increase in drugs, seizures
There are increasing amounts of fentanyl being seized at the southern border. The 10,600 pounds seized in fiscal year 2021 was a 230% increase from the previous year, and this year is on track to nearly match 2021.
Part of why these numbers are so high is because there are more drugs crossing the border and part of the reason is because CBP is getting better at intercepting it, Magnus says.
“We’re getting so much more sophisticated in terms of technology and other resources at the ports of entry in detecting not just fentanyl but other illegal drugs,” he says. “Seizure rates have gone up significantly because of the combination of technology, training and other really advanced resources that are helping make a lot of progress in this area.”
Another reason more drugs are entering the country is to satisfy the growing demand, which is something Magnus dealt with extensively as chief of police in Tucson. He says the other component in the broader picture is doing more work in regards to getting people treatment for addiction.
Magnus expects the seizure rates to continue increasing because technology continues to improve; CBP is doing more to get officers back into the field by relegating more processing work to coordinators, contracted employees and others; and staffing levels at ports of entry have increased, which is where nearly 82% of seized drugs were interdicted in 2021 and the first half of 2022.
The importance of transparency and accountability
“I’ve already found in Washington — but to be fair, it’s not just in Washington — transparency and accountability are two overused words in government, and they’re not always followed up with meaningful action and outcomes,” Magnus said. “So I hope people see that we are really working hard at CBP to ensure that what we say matches what we do.”
CBP has not been known for its transparency, but they have taken recent steps toward being more open and accountable, such as releasing monthly employee arrest data and planning to eliminate the controversial Border Patrol teams that have investigated fellow agents in extreme use-of-force cases.
“I’ve worked hard to develop a reputation that’s backed up with action as somebody who believes in reform within the criminal justice field,” Magnus said. “There are a few jobs more important when it comes to maintaining the public trust, ensuring accountability, then jobs that involve law enforcement. I take that same view as I assume this role as CBP Commissioner.”