The more than 5,000 active-duty and National Guard troops deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border are providing valuable support at a time when U.S. Border Patrol agents are "overwhelmed on a daily basis" by asylum seekers, the agency's top official said Thursday.
U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said an increase of large groups of immigrants turning themselves in at the border has forced the agency to divert 40 to 60% of agents from their security mission to provide humanitarian assistance.
To fill the breach, deployed active-duty troops have stepped up surveillance, providing information to apprehend 15,600 illegal immigrants and contributing to the seizure of 3,800 pounds of marijuana and $2,300 in cash.
National Guard forces, which are providing radio communications, maintenance and brush clearing capabilities to the Border Patrol, have furnished 5,800 hours of air support and contributed to 94,000 apprehensions, as well as the seizure of 24,000 pounds of marijuana, 131 pounds of methamphetamine and $7,000.
- Government Eyeing Fort Benning For New Shelter For Immigrant Children
- Active Duty Troops to Spend a Month Painting Border Wall
- Two American Soldiers Stopped by Mexican Troops Along the Border
"The situational awareness helps keep the limited number of agents we have on the border safe and aware of illegal activity," Provost told the House Homeland Security Border Security, Facilitation and Operations subcommittee during a hearing on the Defense Department's deployment to the U.S.-Mexican border.
President Donald Trump began sending National Guard troops to the southern border last April to augment U.S. presence along the divide and provide support and surveillance services to the Department of Homeland Security.
Thousands of active-duty service members were sent in October to serve as a deterrent. They have performed road maintenance, vegetation clearing, fleet maintenance, communications and surveillance support.
Provost said that while the service members are not operating in law enforcement or interdiction capacities, some have contact with migrants as drivers of transport vehicles or while handing out meals.
She added, however, that they "have no custodial requirements."
Instead, they provide vital support to an agency stretched thin, pulled away to process asylum seekers, including more than 1,000 who arrived at 4 a.m. one day last month, "the largest group in the Border Patrol's 95-year history," Provost said.
"As long as we face this crisis, I will continue to ask for DoD support," she continued.
Provost said she'd like to see Congress change immigration laws to dispel a notion among immigrants that they will be allowed in the country if they arrive with children.
Current laws, she said, are encouraging families to make a risky trip or send their children alone. According to Provost, families from 52 countries have illegally crossed the border this year -- 742 in the last two weeks from African countries. Others hail from Peru, Romania, Ecuador, Vietnam and Brazil.
The deployment of U.S. forces to the border and Trump's declaration of a national emergency have drawn criticism for what some say is a manufactured emergency and political maneuver to galvanize the president's voter base.
Members of Congress have said that border crossings are actually at a low, but Provost said her agency, with the support of DoD surveillance, is aware of 100,000 immigrants who entered at the border and evaded arrest, what the agency calls "gotaways."
"These are just the ones we know about even with Defense Department support," she said.
Planning is underway to house up to 5,000 immigrant children on U.S. military bases, including at 1,400 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Other bases under consideration to house children are Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, and Fort Benning, Georgia.
"This crisis, and it is a crisis ... this is not like any crisis I have seen in my career when we are talking the humanitarian side of the house," Provost said.
As of April 30, Health and Human Services had received referrals for about 40,900 such children this fiscal year. More than 80,000 people are in custody, according to Acting Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan.
Lawmakers said they have concerns that the administration is not working to resolve the humanitarian crisis and instead is preparing for a long-term DoD presence, what subcommittee chairwoman Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, called "a multi-year deployment of active-duty soldiers to the border" in a steep escalation of the Pentagon's role there.
"These policy decisions will have consequences and long-term effects. Broad questions remain whether the actions this administration has taken are an appropriate use of DoD and DHS resources," she said.
Committee member John Joyce, R-Pennsylvania, asked whether more National Guard troops could be used at the border to help what he described as an "unprecedented crisis."
"Over 144,000 attempted to illegally enter along the southwest border in May 2019, a 622% increase over the same month two years ago. ... We are overwhelmed," he said.
The debate over Trump's proposed border wall has sharply divided the nation, with the issue affecting nearly every debate in Congress and prompting an unprecedented 35-day government shutdown earlier this year.
On Thursday toward the hearing's end, Provost stepped into the political firestorm, saying remarks by New York Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that the U.S. is running concentration camps at the border were "personally offensive."
Provost said her agents are "doing the best they can," given the limited resources U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been given to handle the influx of asylum seekers or those apprehended while illegally crossing.
"Agents [are] bringing in toys for children that they are buying with their personal money. They are bringing in clothes. They are feeding babies. They are going above and beyond, day in and day out, to try to care for these individuals to the best of their personal ability," she said. "This is not what they are trained for. I am extremely offended by those comments."