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Q&A: Border protection commissioner talks 'zero tolerance,' family separations and how to discourage immigration

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

National immigration policy has shifted significantly in recent weeks, as the Trump administration implemented a controversial "zero tolerance" policy of criminally charging and detaining more migrants who cross the border illegally, separating parents from children.

So many migrants are being detained, the federal government announced plans to house children at military bases and adults at federal prisons, the largest in Victorville, Calif. At the same time, the number of migrants caught crossing the southern border has remained steady for the last three months.

The Los Angeles Times sat down to discuss the news with U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan during his visit to agents in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the epicenter of migration in recent years.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you come to Rio Grande Valley this month and last, and what have you learned from your visits?

A: It's our busiest sector borderwide for illegal crossings between ports of entry for the Border Patrol. It's the sector with the highest amount of narcotics being smuggled between ports of entry. And it's one of our most critical locations from Laredo to Brownsville, with the eight ports of entry, in terms of trade and travel flowing through our ports.

So, you know, 10 percent of my workforce is in between Laredo and Brownsville and it's an important place to visit. And again it's our highest-tempo operation. So I need to stay very much in tune with what the challenges are our men and women are facing, understand them, understand what resources they need, how policy decisions are affecting them, to make sure that I'm on top of it.

Q: Can you say anything about how many immigrants were caught crossing the southern border illegally last month? This would include people apprehended entering the country illegally and "inadmissibles" applying for asylum.

A: We've had consistent levels of apprehensions and inadmissible crossing since March. March and April were pretty much level at 50,000, both between apprehensions between ports of entry at that 36,000-37,000 level, and inadmissibles arriving at ports of entry between 12,000 and 13,000. So we remain day to day at those levels, which presents a number of challenges operationally.

Q: Has "zero tolerance" had any impact, or is it too early to say?

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