McALLEN, Texas – Department of Homeland Security leaders gathered Thursday in the shadow of 30-foot black-painted steel bollards to promote the 400-mile completion of President Trump’s border wall.
The politics of the day, five days before the election, were not lost on anyone.
“The only reason we haven’t reached another crisis is because of the policies and procedures this administration has put in place over the past few years, including building an effective system of border walls,” Chad F. Wolf, acting Homeland Security secretary, told reporters, photographers and cameramen. “Abolishing these measures or reversing the path is absolutely not a solution.”
Immigration has not been a central theme in the race between Mr. Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democratic candidate, but the future of some of the president’s radical border policies will be determined by the results. .
The Department of Homeland Security rushed to deliver on Mr. Trump’s promise of a 450-mile border wall by year-end. Customs and border protection officials say the agency is still about a week away from the 400-mile mark, and almost all of the construction has taken place in areas where there were already dilapidated fences or vehicle barriers. .
But the steel structure on the border, built without Congressional approval, is something of a monument to the president’s determination. It has affected the environment, private landlords and, according to homeland security officials, the work of border officials.
In recent days, department heads have crossed the country, including into battlefield states, to highlight routine arrests by immigration and customs services, criticize Democrats and blow up so-called policies of sanctuary cities. The agency has also erected notice boards in Pennsylvania warning of the dangers posed by undocumented immigrants.
All of this amplified criticism that the department has become an arm of the Trump campaign.
“There is partisan politics behind it, not operational reasons,” said David Lapan, a former spokesperson for the Homeland Security and Defense Departments under Mr. Trump. “Over the time of the Trump administration, DHS has been seen to be increasingly politicized.”
American Oversight, the government nonprofit watchdog, has asked the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General to verify whether top executives violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in activities policies at work.
Standing in front of a line of border patrol officers, Mr Wolf dismissed criticism and championed policies that effectively halted migration across the southwest border, leaving families in squalid tent camps in some of the most dangerous areas of Mexico.
Homeland security officials have also attacked the policy proposals of Mr Biden, who pledged to immediately stop building walls and end the Stay in Mexico program that has forced tens of thousands of migrants to wait in Mexico for hearings on asylum claims.
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Mark A. Morgan, the acting commissioner of customs and border protection of the United States, said that the policies adopted by Mr. Biden would cause an “invasion” of migrants, although he admitted in a separate interview that most of the migrants who crossed the border last year were not criminals but rather Central American families fleeing poverty.
When asked in an interview if he was concerned that his tongue might create the perception of a violent threat, Mr Morgan responded defensively.
“This is what people immediately want to go to, are we xenophobic, are we racists, right?” he said, adding, “I have no problem saying that the overwhelming majority of those who attempt to enter the United States illegally are not bad people, right?” But some are. So my question is, how much?
Most of the illegal crossings in the United States in recent years have been in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, but only seven miles of the wall have been built in the area.
Private landowners in South Texas say the wall will cut off their farmland and properties; they forced the Trump administration to go through the arduous process of asserting a prominent area in court. To meet the 450 miles promised by Mr. Trump, the administration has concentrated construction in areas owned by the federal government, on land that already obstructs border crossings.
Border Patrol Chief Rodney S. Scott admitted the Rio Grande Valley “was a higher priority for the US Border Patrol.” But, he added, “we chose to go ahead and downgrade because I could make a difference right away.”
This approach has damaged ecosystems and disrupted the migration of endangered wildlife, said Laiken Jordahl, a border activist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“This 400 mile celebration is not trivial,” he said. “This is something that indigenous communities and nations in border regions mourn. This marks 400 miles of destruction.
The Trump administration got about $ 15 billion to build 731 miles of border wall, much of the money transferred from the Department of Defense and funds that had been allocated by Congress to military construction projects and to the ban on drugs.
As the president’s deadline nears, the government has stepped up lawsuits against South Texas landowners. It has filed 106 landowner lawsuits this year to survey, seize and possibly begin construction, an increase from 27 lawsuits filed in 2019, said Ricky Garza, attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project. The federal government filed 22 cases in September alone.
“This is an attack on our culture, our heritage, our very identity, and that’s why we are fighting,” said Melissa Cigarroa, a landowner who said the government threatened to sue her for gain access to his property in Zapata County, Texas. . “We feel it viscerally.”
Homeland security officials say the border wall is essential. This has allowed the agency to channel migration to specific areas, where it can strategically place border patrol officers to apprehend migrants. They say this freed those officers to make more arrests rather than responding to families seeking protection.
This month, the agency is expected to record the highest monthly illegal crossings of the year, Wolf said. But the asylum blockade did not come from a steel wall but from a web of policy changes, particularly the Stay in Mexico policy, which forced more than 60,000 migrants to return to Mexico to wait. the hearing dates to have their asylum claims assessed.
The ministry also used a public health emergency declaration to promptly return migrants, including unaccompanied children, to Mexico or their countries of origin without giving them a chance to have their asylum claims heard.
While the ministry said the rule had prevented the spread of the disease in the United States, immigration lawyers say it conflicts with immigration laws which say migrants must have a chance to voice their fear of persecution in their home country when they enter American soil.
Mr. Morgan pushed back again.
“There are times when a person’s desire and need to seek asylum is replaced by something of far greater value,” he said, “and that’s the lives of American citizens. “.
He added that migrants still have the option of being afraid of torture assessed by an immigration officer, although screening carries a much higher bar than screening for persecution.
Mr Morgan said the Mexican government had failed to verify reports of widespread violence against migrants in Mexico. But immigration organizations have recorded hundreds of attacks on people forced by the United States to return to Mexico, with some broadcasting tapes of attempted extortion by cartels.
Mr Morgan blamed the migrants.
“They are intentionally leaving the protected environment, rehiring the smugglers’ organizations, even when they have been told not to do so, to try to get to the United States illegally,” he said. “That’s when they expose themselves.”