“The patchwork system in place continues to fail us all,” the chiefs, who served in the agency in both Democratic and Republican administrations, wrote.
The letter — the first of its kind — indicates the urgency of the situation along the southern border from the perspective of officials who experienced previous surges firsthand.
“This is a problem we’ve had for many years. Look back at 2014 with the unaccompanied children crisis. We didn’t have the infrastructure then. We definitely were suffering from that same problem under the previous administration,” said Rodolfo Karisch, who previously served as chief patrol agent in Tucson, Arizona, and the Rio Grande Valley.
“This is something that both sides keep pointing fingers at, but unfortunately it’s the agents in the field that are having to deal with a very serious issue but one that also takes them away from their law enforcement responsibilities,” he said.
Karisch is among those who signed the letter. Other signatories include: David V. Aguilar, Ronald Vitiello, Carla Provost, Michael Fisher, Scott Luck, Robert L. Harris, Paul Beeson, Anthony Porvaznik, Roy Villareal and Robert Gilbert. Together they make up decades of experience in the US Border Patrol.
The letter is addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“We’re not seeing any action. Our experience has taught us that now is the time to act. We need Congress to get on board. We need a recognition of the fact that there’s a crisis on the Southwest border,” Villareal, who served as chief patrol agent in the Tucson sector from 2018 to 2020, told CNN.
US Border Patrol facilities, in particular, were designed to process adults, not intended to care for children. But amid Covid-19 constraints and limited shelter capacity, thousands of children have been staying in Border Patrol facilities longer than the 72-hour limit under US law.
As of Tuesday, there were more than 4,800 unaccompanied children in Customs and Border Protection custody, according to government data reviewed by CNN. The average time in custody for children continues to hover around 136 hours, the data shows.
In the letter to congressional leadership, the former chiefs underscored the issues that poses for agents on the ground.
“Unaccompanied children and families often arrive at the border with a variety of medical issues ranging from dehydration to malnutrition to physical injuries. Border Patrol agents encounter these children in remote regions of the border, far from any infrastructure or relief necessary to address these issues,” they wrote.
“In the last several years, the Border Patrol has spent millions of dollars in operational funds to provide meals, hygiene products, showers, and medical care for those in custody to include unaccompanied children. These are stopgap measures that do not reflect meaningful change or provide the necessary care for children at the border,” the letter continues.
In recent days, congressional delegations have taken trips to the US-Mexico border to visit the facilities. Last Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas led a bipartisan Senate delegation to El Paso, Texas, to visit facilities.
This week, Customs and Border Protection released government footage of an overflow facility designed to help with intake of children and families. The video showed dozens of children and adults in crowded spaces and captured the intake process, agents at computers and a “living area” with young people walking and sitting in plastic pods with mats on the floor and mylar blankets.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the administration would provide media access to those Border Patrol facilities.
“This is just the first step in the process of providing greater access to the media,” Psaki told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny at a White House briefing.
Psaki said: “We all agree that the Border Patrol facilities are not places where children should be. They are, children should be moving more quickly through those facilities. That is what our policy central focus is right now.”
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