This week, on the "Heritage Explains" podcast, former acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration and Heritage visiting fellow, Chad Wolf, breaks down what’s happening at the border, how it started, and if we can stop it.
Michelle Cordero: The rush of illegal immigrants at the border is at a historical high, and every day it's getting worse. Migrant teenagers and children are the focus of the crisis right now, and according to the department of Homeland security, there are over 17,000 minors in custody or at facilities. That's well over the 11,000 recorded in spring 2019. And it's been estimated that we can expect another 18 to 22,000 more next month alone.
Cordero: Photos of children sleeping shoulder to shoulder on the floor, with aluminum blankets, in clear podlike cages were recently released. Other footage showed them banging their hands on plexiglass windows and doors. In the first press conference of Joe Biden's presidency. Questions about the border crisis dominated the conversation. And after weeks of being denied access inside border facilities, the media has started asking harder questions.
Reporter: The customs and border protection facility in Donna, Texas, I was there, is at 1556% capacity right now, with mostly unaccompanied minors. There are kids that are sleeping on floors. They are packed into these pods. What is your reaction to these images that have come out from that particular facility? Is what's happening inside acceptable to you?
Joe Biden: Is that a serious question? Right? Is it acceptable to me? Come on. That's why we're going to be moving a thousand of those kids out quickly.
Cordero: Another question that's been popular, but isn't so hard to answer, is if the Biden administration created this crisis by making changes to Trump's policy, or would this have happened?
Chad Wolf: I keep hearing this notion that they inherited a dismantled immigration system, which really couldn't be farther from the truth. And again, as we saw in 2020, where we saw no mass caravans from Central America, where we saw some of the lowest illegal apprehensions that we've seen in some time, is a Testament to the policies and procedures that we put in place actually worked.
Cordero: That's Chad Wolf, who served as the acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration. Wolf recently joined the Heritage Foundation as a visiting fellow, and today he's going to break down how this crisis started, how serious it really is, and if we can even stop it. Our conversation, after this short break.
Cordero: Chad, thanks so much for joining us today.
Wolf: Well, thank you for having me. Looking forward to the conversation.
Cordero: So in his recent press conference, President Biden stated that the increase in border numbers was seasonal, that this is something that happens every year and that nothing has changed. That it's based on the warmer weather. Is this the case in what we're seeing right now?
Wolf: No, that's simply not an accurate statement at all. What we're seeing now is very much an anomaly. We had in February, one of the highest February's of illegal apprehensions on that Southwest border in more than 20 years. And so, simply saying it's seasonal does not make up for the fact of sort of the dangerous policies and messaging coming from this administration.
Cordero: Yeah. So he also said that what they're trying to do is rebuild the system that President Trump dismantled, to accommodate what's happening today. So it sounds like he's saying that this crisis would have happened anyway. How would you respond to that?
Wolf: Yeah, again, just simply not accurate. And I think a lot of the facts, pictures on the ground, paint the picture that it's not factual. I keep hearing this notion that they inherited a dismantled immigration system, which really couldn't be farther from the truth. And again, as we saw in 2020 where we saw no mass caravans from Central America, where we saw some of the lowest illegal apprehensions that we've seen in some time, is a testament to the policies and procedures that we put in place actually worked. Now, when we came in 2017, we inherited a broken immigration system that was forcing us to catch illegal apprehensions and then release them into American communities. What is known as catch and release. And so we went about breaking that system down, because we viewed it, and I think the vast majority of Americans view that, as not a functioning immigration system.
Wolf: So over the course of the next several years, we broke that apart and broke it down and then put in a network of policies and procedures that rendered an immigration consequence to those that crossed the border illegally. And so, the Biden administration is now upset about that. They are upset that we dismantled the catch and release system and they are going back to that. So their comments about having to rework a system. They are talking about having to rework or put in place a broken system that they have now fallen back into. And that's unfortunate on a variety of different fronts.
Cordero: How much information was left for the Biden administration when they entered back in? You talk about what you inherited when the Trump administration came in. How much information was left for them about the policies that were working?
Wolf: So a significant amount. I would say overall at the Department of Homeland Security, we probably hosted more than 100 transition briefings throughout the department on its various missions. Just on border security and immigration alone were more than two dozen briefings to the Biden transition team. I talked with some of the transition officials, and specifically pointed out a number of these policies that we had put in place over the preceding two years. And I warned them about, if you take these away, this is likely what's going to happen. You're going to see increases at border patrol stations and HHS facilities, and you're going to see backups. And then at the staff level, career, not political, but career law enforcement agents and officers with Customs and Border Protection, specifically laid that out and staff level briefings with charts, with graphs and others. Now, what we didn't know is what they were going to do. So these were often one way conversations of us briefing them. They obviously did not tell us what they plan to do on January the 20th. So we tried to provide them with as much information, as much data to make decisions, but unfortunately either they chose to ignore it or they chose to go a different direction. And they chose to implement or repeal a number of decisions on day one, week one, that's had a dramatic and dangerous effect here on the border.
Cordero: Yeah. That's interesting to hear it from that perspective. We don't hear about that that much. And I would assume that there are some career folks there who are unhappy with the things that they're having to do as well.
Wolf: Absolutely. I've talked and hear from a number of them, particularly the folks in the field. Border patrol agents on the ground, along that Southwest border, specifically in Texas. Where today, more than half of those agents are not on the line or not working on the border. Instead, they're back in border patrol facilities, feeding, clothing, and caring for these thousands of individuals in their facilities. That's not what they're trained to do. That's not the job they signed up for. And so that's concerning. And particularly in Texas, they can't process them fast enough. They have stopped, in some cases, even issuing court dates, what we call notices to appear or an NTA. They stopped issuing those because it takes simply too long to do that paperwork. So now you have illegal immigrants really coming into the country illegally, and then being released in a matter of hours into the community without even being in the immigration system. So they are gone, they are into the wind. They're supposed to come back on their own recognizance and sign up for a court date. We know that they will never do that, because the vast majority do not qualify for asylum.
Cordero: You mentioned something that I was actually going to ask you about. You mentioned the reassignments that are happening. I have some friends that are devastated right now. Not because they're reassigned to go and help people, but because they've been stopped from danger that they were preventing from entering our country. Can you explain to our listeners what that means and why they're so scared?
Wolf: Sure. So when you have border patrol agents, their job is to patrol the border. Each of that 2000 mile border on that Southwest border, is broken up into different sectors, border patrol sectors. So each one of them has a different area of responsibility, an AOR of sorts. And so, you're on the line and you're doing that national security mission. You are apprehending individuals coming across the border illegally. You're apprehending drug runners. You're apprehending folks from the cartel trying to get contraband in. There's a variety of different things that you're doing in the field every day, every night, depending on when your mission is. And so right now, like I said, over 50% of those individuals are now being back at a border patrol facility inside, trying to care for these thousands of individuals that are in their custody, making sure nothing happens to them, making sure that their medical needs are taken care of, and every other need.
Wolf: And so when you have that many people, then you're having to shuttle them around to different facilities along that Southwest border, that takes an enormous amount of man hours to do that. And so we have highly trained officers who have gone to a border patrol academy for months and months and months, trained to do that national security, that Homeland Security mission, how to apprehend, how to interdict, that are no longer doing that. And we know that the cartels are taking advantage of that. They have lookouts on the other side of the border, and they know when border patrol is there and when they are not. And so, this idea of having over 50% of your workforce off the line is an open invitation to cartels, and to smugglers, and traffickers and others that it's okay to push people, push contraband, push drugs across that border.
Cordero: And I mean, these are pretty bad folks, and it's not just cartel too, right? There are people from Sudan and Africa and other places as well, correct?
Wolf: Right. So we heard reporting about three or four weeks ago, talking about what we call KSTs, which are known or suspected terrorists. These are individuals that are on one watch list or another, and that we know that CBP and border patrol picked up three or four of these individuals this fiscal year. And we know, when there are big surges like this, that bad people try to embed themselves within the flow, to try to gain entry into the United States. And it's not only the known or suspected terrorists, which are again individuals that are actually on a watch list, but it's also what we call special interest aliens. These are individuals that may not be on a watch list, but have travel patterns that are very similar to terrorists and other bad individuals. So it may be people coming from Central Africa. They fly into Brazil, they then fly to Panama, and then slowly they make their way up through Mexico and arrive at our Southwest border. And we don't know what their intentions are, and we have a hard time tracking them. And so this idea of you're having less and less border patrol officers and agents on that line to interdict these individuals, and stop to question them to gain more information, is concerning.
Cordero: That would be devastating if it was my job to track that person, and then all of a sudden I was told to stop.
Wolf: No, absolutely. Well, you're not only told to stop. You're told to go into a border patrol facility and serve meals, help change diapers and help do other things that they are not trained to do. I mean, they do it because they're good people. These officers are highly motivated and they want to do the right thing, but this is not what they go to the Border Patrol Academy to do.
Cordero: So going back to the Biden presser, one last thing on that. There was one particular reporter that really got the best of President Biden. She highlighted the Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas. And the fact that it's 1000% over capacity right now, with mostly unaccompanied minors. And she said that there are kids sleeping on floors, that they're packed into these pods, and that they haven't seen sunlight in days. And she asked him for his reaction on this, and if he thought it was acceptable. And he got upset, the question really struck a nerve. Why do you think that one hit him so hard?
Wolf: Well, I think perhaps it’s hitting very hard because he knows that they're not doing the job that they should be doing. They know that a lot of the things that President Biden or candidate Biden at the time, as well as Vice President Harris talked about during the Trump administration, are the same things that are occurring today. They're having a tremendous surge, and they're having a hard time housing individuals and processing individuals. And there's no silver bullet in doing that, other than to stop them from coming into the US illegally to begin with. And so I keep talking about this administration wrongly treating this issue as though it's a capacity issue that can be fixed over time. And that's simply not the case. They're throwing more people, more resources, and opening up more facilities. And all that does is encourage more and more individuals to come. It's sort of like if you build it, they will come.
Cordero: Yeah, there's a new caravan, I heard this morning, on the way.
Wolf: Right. So instead of addressing the illegal activity issue. Stopping and holding people accountable for crossing that border illegally is what they should be doing, and turning them around and sending a signal to Mexico, and the Northern triangle, and other countries frankly, that it's not okay, that you will not be released in the country. In fact, you'll be returned back home. And if individuals and migrants see that that's occurring, seeing that their friends and family are coming to the border, but yet they're being returned home in a matter of weeks, they're going to get the signal. They're not going to make that journey. And I think that's where we want to be at the end of the day. Because what this also does, when you have this flood of individuals coming in, it's very difficult to actually sift through that and determine who actually needs asylum protections. When you encounter over 100,000 folks in a month, there's no way that you can actually process legitimate asylum protections to the 10% of people who actually need it. And so, they're getting lost within this system as well. And so, that's also concerning. We want to make sure that we give protections to those who truly, truly need it, but we know about 90% do not. And then that's the conundrum, and that's the issue that the Biden administration is having today.
Cordero: So moving away from Biden's false statements, I'll ask you in conclusion, one last question here. DHS Secretary Mayorkas has also made several false statements about the border crisis. And about a week or so ago, he actually claimed that the border is secure and that the border is closed. Is that true or false?
Wolf: Well, obviously it's not accurate. I think that the vast majority of your listeners and the American people know that that's not accurate just by looking at the pictures, looking at the numbers, and doing some basic math. It's not accurate. I would say that the Secretary has had a couple of missteps. His messaging early on was, "You can come, just don't come now." Which is a very, very dangerous message. And we saw that it helped fuel this crisis that we're seeing today. And now he is saying, "The border is closed and the border is secure." Which we know that's not the issue. We know that the numbers haven't come out yet, but March will be probably over 140,000 illegal apprehensions. That will be the highest that we've seen since 2019, and it will eclipse 2019. So we're getting into new territory when it comes April and May, in numbers that we've never seen before, historic numbers that we've never seen before.
Wolf: So obviously that statement is not accurate. And the issue with that statement is, you have law enforcement officers on the border every day, putting their lives on the line, who listen to these types of statements. Who are apprehending thousands of individuals, hundreds of individuals at a time. And when they hear leadership say, "The border is closed, the border is secure," they know that's a lie. They know that's not accurate. And I would be very concerned that there will be a loss of confidence in that leadership if that continues to be the message day over day, when you have these historically high numbers, you have catch and release going on, you have NTAs that we've talked about not even being issued. The list goes on, and on, and on.
Cordero: Thank you so much for taking the time to explain this issue with us a little further. I know that you're very busy out there, doing good work for Heritage and good work for America, as we try and get through this crisis. So thank you again.
Wolf: Yeah. No, thank you. And let me just say thank you to Heritage, who talks a lot about these issues, particularly immigration and border security. And there's a lot more that we can do.
Cordero: Thanks so much for listening to this week's episode. I'm going to link to Chad's latest op ed written for Heritage, and you can find a transcript of this episode as well in our show notes. If you guys liked this episode, if you could please share it with your friends and family, word of mouth is the best way to get new listeners, and conservative podcasts really need your help. I hope you have a great day, and Tim will be back next week with a new episode,
Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of the Heritage Foundation. It is produced by Cordero and Tim Doescher, with editing by John Pop.