Special Briefing Via Telephone
Mark A. Morgan, Acting Commissioner Of U.S. Customs And Border Protection
March 12, 2020
Moderator: Greetings, everyone, from the U.S. Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas in Miami, Florida. I would like to welcome our participants who have dialed in from the United States and from across the region. Thank you for your patience with starting a few minutes late this morning.
This is an on-the-record conference call with Mark Morgan, Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, also known as CBP. Acting Commissioner Morgan will provide an update on CBP’s efforts to address the security and humanitarian crisis at the U.S. Southwest border, facilitate dialogue aimed at strengthening U.S. partnerships across Latin America to confront irregular and illegal migration at the source, and implement various border enforcement programs in direct support of CBP’s commitment to uphold the rule of law.
He will give brief remarks and then answer questions from participating journalists. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Acting Commissioner Morgan.
Acting Commissioner Morgan: Good morning, everyone, and thank you for that introduction. I’m going to be – for those that will be needing translation assistance, just for everybody who does not, I’ll be talking a little bit slower to help the translators and I’ll be taking some additional pauses so they can catch up. So I just want to let everybody know that’s why it may take a little bit longer for me to get through my comments.
So as I stated – as we rolled out the February numbers, as I stated a couple weeks ago, for the 9th straight month in a row we have continued to make incredible progress strengthening our border, specifically not only to address the multitude of threats that we have, but specifically addressing the flow of illegal migration. We’ve continued to expand the network of initiatives and policies within the United States, as well as – and I think this is critically important – as well as strengthening our international partnerships in an effort to further expand our collective ability to end the human smuggling efforts, to prey on migrants, to end their exploitation of these migrants, and to end the abuse of the migrants.
We are now – and I think this is key – we are in a much different place than we were just a few short months ago. We are continuing to aggressively expand our capability to more effectively and efficiently remove, return, and apply appropriate consequences to those who illegally enter our country and file fraudulent or invalid claims. And this has been one of our major goals – to close the loopholes in our immigration system. As she stated right from the beginning, to include enforcing the rule of law and bringing back integrity to our system. And make no mistake, we are succeeding in this effort.
I think this is key that I hope is messaged out to every individual thinking about taking this dangerous journey. Today, right now in March, if you come to our border and attempt to illegally enter, to violate our laws and file a meritless based claim, you will be removed, you will be returned, or have an appropriate consequence applied. And let me give you a couple of statistics to illustrate this. The last five months we have been removing more illegal immigrants than we have apprehended. Think about that. The last five months we’re removing more immigrants, illegal aliens, than we are actually encountering along the Southwest border. And we are way more efficient and effective at doing so. We’re applying a removal pathway or consequence to over 95 percent of those we apprehend. That’s a game changer from just a few short months ago back in May when that was not the story.
And what does this mean? I think this is important for everybody to understand that things have changed. Meaning, catch and release, as I think we all know and understand, is all but over. Bringing a child to the United States border no longer means that you will be automatically allowed into the U.S. Simply filing, simply making a claim does not mean you will automatically be allowed in the United States like it did just a few short months ago. Those days, they’re over. And what worked last year – meaning, grab a child or simply file a claim and you would be allowed in the United States – that simply doesn’t work anymore. We are strictly enforcing our immigration laws and, once again, upholding the rule of law.
Now, in addition to our – the United States expanded policies and network of initiatives, we’re continuing to improve our collective operational capacity. Additional Border Patrol agents are doing enforcement operations at the border. This has increased the chances that an illegal border crosser will be detected and arrested, and the statistics prove that. Furthermore, our international partnerships are adding more layers of security to our Southwest border, as well as within the interior of their own countries. And again, the statistics will show that up with increased apprehensions across Mexico and Central America. And we are collectively and aggressively going after the human smuggling organizations who exploit and endanger migrants, as well as other activities which threatens all countries in the region.
Make no mistake – and I want to be clear – our strategy to address the historic flood of Central American families illegally crossing the border has absolutely changed the game, and it is working. Just a – from May to this month in February, you saw a 70 – almost a 75 percent reduction in apprehensions within a 30-day period. It’s unprecedented. And let me give you a couple more stats. CBP enforcement actions in 2019 along the Southwest border totaled almost 1 million. That was about 88 percent higher than the Fiscal Year ’18, the previous year. Border Patrol alone apprehended nearly 852,000 illegal aliens along the Southwest border. That’s 115 percent higher than the previous fiscal year, driven largely by family units and unaccompanied minors.
I think most of you remember just one 24-hour period last May, we encountered more than 5,800 border crossings, and the peak in May totaled 144,000 in one month. It was unprecedented and it overwhelmed our system. But now that has all dramatically changed. We have reduced the flow significantly. As I’ve stated, we are removing more immigrants now than we encounter. We are applying the removal pathway or consequence to almost everyone we encounter. No more are we allowing them to enter the United States.
As I said, we have reduced overall apprehensions by almost 75 percent since the peak in May. We have reduced apprehensions of families, primarily from Central American countries, by 92 percent from the peak of May. We have reduced the apprehensions of unaccompanied minors by 66 percent from the peak of May. This also illustrates how we are definitely bringing back integrity to our system. These are facts. Things have changed. And everyone who is considering turning their lives over to the hands of the smugglers, they should pause and understand the smugglers are lying to them. It’s not like it was. Our borders are stronger than ever.
And we’re not just strengthening our southwest border. With the new tools and partnership with, for example, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement – ICE – we are applying additional resources in an effort to increase interior enforcement as well. So for those few immigrants who do make it through illegally, we’re increasing our capacity to find you and arrest you as well. Furthermore, everyday more miles of new border wall system and technologies are being deployed to the border. We have now completed over 135 miles of border wall system. In February, we also received additional funding to continue to construct border wall system in our highest priority strategic locations.
The administration’s support remains strong and the United States Army Corps of Engineers continues to be a valued partner. And I remain confident that we will have 450 miles of border wall system completed by the end of 2020. And I think this is key: The barriers that immigrants encountered in the past are not what they will see today. I was just in El Paso this week and I saw firsthand and up close the new wall system. This is more than just a wall; it’s a complete multi-layered system, including technology, access roads, and lighting. It’s increasing our operational capacity to impede and deny anyone trying to defeat it.
Now, let me talk for a minute about our regional partnerships. Regional solutions are being applied because this is a regional crisis. DHS and CBP is and continues to work with our partners throughout Central America to return integrity to the immigration system. As I mentioned, I was down in El Paso and part of the trip down there, I hosted a Guatemala delegation to showcase CBP’s processing and our humanitarian efforts. These efforts and collaboration are resulting in fewer Central Americans falling victim to human smuggling organizations which view them as profits, not people. We will – and I want to illustrate this point, and so I’m going to say this slowly so hopefully it’s interpreted accurately: We – the United States Government, CBP – we will continue to treat immigrants in our custody with humanity and compassion. We will continue to provide proper medical care, clothing, food, and security, as well as expanding and improving our facilities especially for families and children.
We’re going to do that. Absolutely. That is my commitment, that is our commitment to the individuals that we encounter at the Southwest border. But I think it’s equally as important, again – and I’m going to say it strongly – there can be no mistake though that we have closed the loopholes in our immigration system and we will enforce the rule of law. Meaning, if you attempt to illegally enter our country without a valid claim, we’re going to remove you, return you, or apply a consequence. We are and we can do both. We’re going to enforce the rule of law, we’re going to make sure that those illegally entering will be removed promptly, but we’re going to do so with humanity and compassion. That’s my commitment and my promise.
Now, let me talk about specific engagement with Mexico. Mexico has strengthened immigration efforts at its Southern border and in historic ways. And its interior, for example, deploying more than 25 (*) military personnel and immigration officers. Mexico has deployed thousands of law enforcement personnel to help detain migrants as they move north. More than 140,000 individuals have been arrested and removed from Mexico for traveling illegally through the country. This is truly unprecedented. The time when large caravans could travel freely through Mexico has ended. Just look at the failed caravans in January.
Our engagements with Central American countries, like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which I had the pleasure of recently visiting in February. While we were there, we engaged governmental leaders and private sector leaders as well, and we also engaged some of the media folks while we were there as well. We did our best to explain that the era of catch and release is over. We discussed regional solutions to stemming illicit migration, and also – which is key – to promote security improvements because we truly believe that security is the bridge to economic prosperity, which we were also focused on assisting with.
I was impressed by the government’s willingness and efforts to enhance border security, stop caravans, and receive more repatriation flights. Guatemala is willing to have discussions about expanding the capacity via their ACA agreement, and we are expecting the Honduras ACA to come online any day. Through the ACA, CBP and its partners have transferred over 800 individuals claiming to seek protection. And this is key: Most have abandoned their claims upon arriving in Guatemala when they realize that their attempt to defraud the U.S. immigration system has failed.
Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – security officials from all three of these countries voiced their appreciation for the training, support, and information they’re receiving from CBP personnel in country. And as the commissioner, I promise CBP is and will remain committed to contributing towards regional custom services that operate in a transparent and efficient way to foster trade and investment.
Now, here’s what I want to start my last comments with. It’s a direct message – a direct message from me to all immigrants considering to take the long journey in an attempt to illegally enter the United States. Do not trust the human smugglers. Do not trust them. Do not endanger yourselves or your children by embarking on the dangerous journey to the United States. It will be in vain. Instead of pinning all your hopes in the hands of the human smugglers to get to the United States, place those hopes into your own countries and your own leaders. Support your local communities and help build your country and your future. Do not leave it behind.
Smuggling is a multi-billion-dollar industry that only enriches the dangerous cartels. These cartels destabilize countries and limit economic growth. The only one who wins with illegal immigration are the human smuggling organizations themselves as they treat everyone they encounter as nothing more than a means to make more money and more profit. Human smugglers have no regard for human life. They will lie to you to get your money. They will treat you badly, they will abuse you throughout the 12 to 24-hundred-mile journey to United States; financially extorting you and your families, threatening or subjecting you to assault, sexual exploitation, and even forced labor. If you become ill or injured, I’m telling you: They will leave you behind to die in the desert. This is a brutal way that they operate. The United States Border Patrol, for example, rescued almost 5,000 people last year. Unfortunately, many perished while being led on dangerous smuggling routes to the United States.
I want to share a story with you, if you’ll just be patient with me. And this is not a good story, but it is an example of the truth. Just last week, we had an immigration couple – a husband along with his pregnant wife – come to our border in an effort to illegally enter. As they approached our border, the smugglers quickly left them alone, fading off in the darkness, leaving them to make the final legs of the journey by themselves. The couple made it to the wall. As they attempted to climb the wall, the husband could do nothing but watch as he saw his pregnant wife fall to the ground. Border Patrol agents immediately responded and rendered medical attention. They immediately called the local medical authorities and transported her to a hospital. Tragically, the mother and the child died from their injuries from the fall.
This is tragic. This is absolutely tragic. But what is also part of the tragedy is this was preventable. Do not listen to smugglers. They do not care about you. They will abuse you and they will leave you behind to die. That is the truth. Those are the facts. And the dangers, they don’t end at the border. As many as my – as many of my international colleagues informed me while I was in Central America – and I know this from my personal knowledge here in the United States – the same gangs in your countries often victimize migrants once they’re in the United States. Money they send home, what they think is getting to their families does not always reach their families or really build toward a future. And border and interior enforcement means they will ultimately return to their home countries without receiving any return on their investment.
As I wrap up my comments, I’d like to clarify a recent court action in the U.S. regarding MPP, or what the media calls “Remain in Mexico” policy. It’s a complicated legal process here with the United States, so I won’t try to explain the intricate details. The bottom line: MPP remains in place and fully operational. In fact, we are continuing to expand our use of MPP. And look, the MPP has been an effective initiative between the United States and Mexico to address the flow of illegal migration. Counter to the false narratives that are out there, MPP actually provides a more expeditious court document. Rather than languishing for years in the United States waiting for a hearing, now it’s being done within months. The migrants can live and work in Mexico and shelters are provided for them while waiting for their hearing in the United States. And it’s sent a vitally important message: If you don’t have a valid claim, don’t risk the journey – it won’t work any longer.
To end, I just want to emphasize, as I said in the beginning, things are very different than they were last year. We have a lot more tools in our toolbox to deal with the surge of illegal immigration. We’re more effective and more efficient at removing, returning, and applying the appropriate consequences to those who attempt to enter our country illegally. We’re improving our operational capacity and our ability to strengthen our Southwest border every day. We will continue to enforce the rule of law and maintain integrity in our immigration system, and we will not stop.
Thank you, and with that, I’ll take questions.
Moderator: Thank you, Commissioner Morgan. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those on the English line asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing.
Our first question was submitted in advance by Ariel Jara of Canal 19 TV Aire Coronel Oviedo in Paraguay, and his question is: “What are CBP’s efforts to address the humanitarian and security crisis on the Southwestern border of the U.S.? What security measures have you adopted for the coronavirus pandemic outbreak?”
Acting Commissioner Morgan: So thank you for that question. I’ll take the first question: what are the specific efforts to address? And I appreciate the acknowledgment that it’s both a humanitarian and security crisis.
So as I – as I mentioned, I think one of the key factors that has really significantly impacted this crisis is that we have come together as partners throughout the region. This is not a United States issue alone, this is not an issue for Mexico alone, and it’s not an issue for the Central American countries alone. It is collectively a crisis that we all share in the region.
So one of the most significant changes that have occurred is the strengthening of those partnerships, the creation of new, innovative policies and initiatives across all countries in the region. I think everybody understands it’s not just MPP but it’s PACR, it’s the ACAs, and we could go on. It’s through those collective agreements, that collective partnership that has really made a positive impact throughout the region.
But I also think that it’s important, as I also mentioned, that the United States, we’re strengthening our Southwest border. Our operational capacity is improving, we’re putting more resources down there such as building more wall system – as is other countries. When we talked about some of the agreements with our partners, a lot want to focus just on the immigration agreements like the ACA or MPP, but we are – we also have border security agreements with these countries as well to strengthen our collective abilities to target and go after the transnational criminal organizations and the smuggling organizations as well.
So the – what was the second part of the question? Oh, the security measures with respect to the coronavirus. I appreciate that – I appreciate that question as well. And so as you can imagine, it’s – the outbreak has continued to grow and expand. The number of countries that have identified positive coronavirus diagnoses is expanding. My understanding is Honduras, for today – example, has a couple of cases. The Mexico cases have increased to 12.
So it’s – the threat, the health risk threat along the Southwest border is – it’s very real. We are working with our healthcare, our medical providers, our Center for Disease Control, CDC, on a daily basis. We are an integral part of the task force, and we are working with them to fully express the conditions along the Southwest border so that they can make an accurate assessment with respect to the healthcare risk along the Southwest border. I think it’s out there that the goal is to aggressively pursue opportunities to contain and mitigate, and I feel that’s exactly what we’re doing.
So CBP, DHS, the United States Government, we are monitoring and we are aggressively pursuing all opportunities to contain and mitigate, and as the crisis continues to change and expand, we will continue to work with our medical providers here and CBP is ready, should we be called upon, to take any additional measures along the Southwest border to protect not only American citizens but protect the citizens in the region, especially due to the illegal migration issue.
Moderator: All right, our next question comes from Grecia Ortiz of Diario La Hora. Operator, please open line 17.
Operator: Your line is open.
Question: Hi. Thank you. Grecia Ortiz from Diario La Hora. My question is regarding to this thing with coronavirus. What are the actions that you are applying specifically with migrants that come to the border?
Acting Commissioner Morgan: Can you please repeat the question, ma’am?
Question: Yes. What are specifically the actions that the United States are implementing with migrants at the border to prevent coronavirus? What are you doing?
Acting Commissioner Morgan: Okay, thank you. I think that’s a great question. And there is sometimes a misunderstanding, and we’re doing exactly the same thing that we’re doing in other locations. So whether someone is coming in from another country via an airplane or they’re coming into a seaport or they’re coming in to a land port or if they’re trying to illegally enter in between the ports, our process is the same regardless. That being, we encounter someone, we’re applying questions. I think everyone understands now that the President of the United States, President Trump, announced additional travel bans for Schengen countries; it’s an additional 26 countries. And so we are applying the same screening process that we do with all those countries, whether it’s an airport, seaport, land port, or in between.
So if we encounter someone – let’s say, for example, if we encounter someone trying to illegally enter on the Southwest border, the Border Patrol agents that make that apprehension will do the same screening of those individuals with respect to coronavirus that we do at an airport. And if they deem it appropriate, they will then coordinate with the proper medical authorities, whether it’s CDC or the local healthcare providers, to ensure that that individual that is showing signs or symptoms will get the prompt, immediate medical contention – attention and screening that is needed.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Nelson Rauda of El Faro in El Salvador. Operator, please open line 21.
Operator: Line is open, please go ahead. Nelson, your lines is open, please go ahead.
And Nelson is —
Moderator: All right, it seems they’re having technical difficulties with Nelson, who has submitted his question in advance, so I’ll read it here. Nelson Rauda of El Faro in El Salvador asks: “A BuzzFeed report from March 10th states that the administration expects that El Salvador receive 2,000 asylum seekers under the asylum accord signed last year, and that returns will start as early as this March. Do you have a deadline and logistics ready for the implementation of the accord?”
Acting Commissioner Morgan: So I appreciate the question, and I think there is a couple of key factors. So one, I – for one, I think if everybody remembers, the ACA was actually signed last September, September of 2019. So it’s been several months since it was signed. Since then we have been in ongoing negotiations, and I think that’s very important to illustrate because we want to make sure that El Salvador is ready, is capable, and is prepared with logistics, with everything that it takes to receive individuals. We want to make sure that they’re prepared in El Salvador also. The government, people we’ve talked to, they want to make sure that they’re prepared as well.
I think it’s important when we do this, we must do it right, and I think part of that is making sure that all the logistics are set in place, all the plans are set in place so that we can do this in a humane and compassionate way. And I was fortunate enough when I went to El Salvador in February, I went to the La Chacra Reception Center, and I saw firsthand not only were the facilities themselves, I think, ready – they looked good, clean, they had everything that they needed – but more importantly, I got to talk to the staff. And what I saw were staff that they have the right mindset. They wanted to be there. One comment to me was, “We’re trying to do the best job we can because individuals coming here, we want to welcome them and we want to treat them with humanity and compassion.” It was really incredible to not only see the facilities that I think are ready and capable, but also to hear from the employees themselves that would be working in these reception centers. It was amazing. In fact, I took some time – they took me to an area that was designed specifically for children. We actually sat in a little tiny chair and little tiny table and we had some really great discussions, and actually, what I saw I actually took back here so that maybe we can mirror some of what I saw with respect to the children’s area.
So I think the negotiations are going well. I have no doubt that El Salvador is prepared, and we’re anticipating the ACA to come online literally any day.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Amanda Hernandez of La Prensa Gráfica. Please open line 33.
Operator: Your line is open, please go ahead.
Question: Yeah. Okay, thank you. I would like to know if you’re still deporting immigrants to El Salvador and Guatemala with all normality taking into consideration that these countries don’t have the novel coronavirus and the United States does? Are these governments still collaborating with the United States to take their deportees back? And also, this couple you talked about in your story, the pregnant immigrant, where were they from? Thank you.
Acting Commissioner Morgan: Let me take the latter part first. She was from Guatemala. I apologize, I should have mentioned that. Again, a tragic story.
So with respect to repatriation and the back channel of coronavirus, so we want to make sure right now the repatriation initiatives and flights are still ongoing. However, and I think this is important, we are also in negotiations with all countries with respect to coronavirus and the potential health risk. And so we’re going to work together. We’re going to work with both the United States as well as the other countries’, our partner countries’ medical professionals, and we will continue to have an open dialogue, continue to monitor and assess on a daily basis what the health risk threat is, and we will no doubt collectively work towards whatever action we need to take to appropriately keep all our systems healthy and safe.
And I think the coronavirus is just like the immigration crisis and the humanitarian crisis. That’s why it’s working so well. We’ve strengthened our partnerships the last year so significantly because what impacts Guatemala, it impacts Mexico and impacts the United States, and vice versa. And so these situations, whether it’s illegal immigration or the coronavirus, these must be met as the regional challenges and regional issues that we are – that they are.
Moderator: We have time for one last question, and that question was submitted in advance by Carolina Rivera of Milenio in Mexico. Carolina asks: “Can you tell us what’s happening with the program “Remain in Mexico” and how many migrants have been returned across the border into Mexico? Because some experts say that MPP is dying. Are you expecting that the flow of migrants will increase in the coming months?”
Acting Commissioner Morgan: So right now we have returned a little over 60,000 migrants to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, or as the media likes to say, “Remain in Mexico” policy. I think it’s important that it has slowed down with respect to the number of individuals we are putting into the program. And to a large part, it’s due because we’re continuing to strengthen our partnerships throughout the region and we’re continuing to expand the additional initiatives that we have and what I always refer to as our network of initiatives. So whether it’s ACA or PACR or some other initiatives that we have, we’re utilizing them all.
However, what I will say is MPP has been one of the most significant initiatives we’ve used to stem the flow of illegal immigration, and it continues to be a very powerful initiative towards that goal, and I’ll give you an example. What’s important is that instead of being allowed – you come with a child and even back in May, you were almost automatically allowed in the United States. You would languish in the United States for years before you would have an opportunity to go to court and continue your processing. Now, under MPP, it takes a matter of months. And what is significant, because we’re not allowing you into the United States anymore, we have seen a dramatic downward shift in people coming and attempting to get in knowing that they don’t have a valid claim. It’s been absolutely a tremendous initiative.
So it’s not going to go away. We still need it. I’ll give you another example. As the cartels, as they do, they continue to shift their tactics, and this is what I mean: So we have all but reduced the families from the Central American countries taking the dangerous trek; the cartels, the human smuggling organizations, they’ve lost hundreds of millions of dollars because of that. So what they’ve done in the last couple of months is they shift their tactics. They’ve shifted their tactics to prey – and I think that’s absolutely the right word – to prey and exploit other demographics, extracontinentals we refer – that meaning countries outside of Mexico or Central America. And they’ve also started to prey and exploit, as they traditionally have, Mexican nationals as well. And so as we’re seeing them shift, some of the initiatives we have do not apply to some of those countries, but MPP does in some circumstances, and we’re also continuing to work with Mexico to expand MPP to other demographics.
I’ll give you an example. Recently we saw an increase in Brazilians – this year from last year, it’s almost a 400 percent increase. And what we went back to Mexico and asked for more support, if they would be willing to expand MPP to include Brazilians. They did and quickly we’ve seen a dramatic reduce in Brazilians trying to illegally enter the United States.
So MPP is alive and well and we’re going to continue to need it and use it.
Moderator: And that concludes today’s call. I want to thank Acting Commissioner Morgan for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at [email protected] Thank you and have a good day.