By Terri Jo Neff |
A top U.S. Border Patrol union representative says the situation along the southwest border “is spinning out of control everywhere,” with the number of illegal border crossings showing no sign of falloff while agency staffing in the field is at dangerously low rates.
“It’s just overwhelming right now,” USBP agent Art Del Cueto told KFYI’s James T. Harris earlier this week. Del Cueto serves as vice president of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) and president of NBPC Local 2544 in Tucson.
The staffing problem had become so bad that NBPC publicized the situation earlier this week, reporting only two agents were covering a 50-mile section of border. There would typically have been 15 to 20 agents assigned to the area, according to NBPC.
USBP agents have long complained about being dangerously outmanned in the field. Several agents have been injured just in the Cochise County area over the last year, including an agent assigned to USBP Tucson Sector who was hospitalized March 4 after being attacked as she arrested an undocumented migrant.
The migrant was eventually subdued and taken into custody when other agents arrived on scene.
“Our agents face extreme risks in the field, and those who bring them harm will be brought to justice,” USBP Tucson Sector Chief John Modlin said a few days later. Even USBP Chief Raul Ortiz was forced to weigh in on the situation after the agent’s early morning attack made national headlines.
The March 4 attack drew an immediate reaction from Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, who promised to have the attacker charged in state court if federal prosecutors dropped the ball.
But while USBP command staffers used the attacked agent’s recovery to deflect from the dangerous situation, Del Cueto contends the ongoing practice of pulling field agents from patrol duties to be used instead to process large groups of border crossers in another area demonstrates the lack of sufficient staffing.
Different areas along the nearly 2,000 mile border between the U.S. and Mexico have different challenges, Del Cueto told Harris. For instance, the USBP Tucson Sector is responsible for a mostly remote and rural terrain.
As a result, the area leads the U.S. with a disturbingly high number of “gotaways,” the name given to undocumented border crossers who evade apprehension and do not turn themselves in for immigration processing.
According to Del Cueto, the cartels know of USBP’s staffing challenges. As a result, they realize getting agents to chase down crossers in certain remote areas provides a distraction which allows drugs or higher paying crossers to be moved through other areas.
Staffing issues are forcing agents in the field to wait longer for transport vehicles to arrive, while at other times they must do the processing and transporting themselves. This removes boots on the ground, and “that’s when you start seeing a lot of other groups come through,” he explained.
Del Cueto calls it a “cop out” when people complain USBP and its parent agency Customs and Border Protection are not asking U.S. Department of Homeland Security to spend more money for technology along the border.
“Technology is fantastic, it helps us see where the groups are but at the end you need the boots on the ground to actually make the arrests,” he told Harris.
The cartels are very organized and “are not dumb,” Del Cueto said, adding that they will continue to do things “as long as they kept seeing this Administration not have any true consequences for these people committing crimes.”
“The agents that are still here in Tucson, they have their hands full,” Del Cueto said. “Their backup is far away. They are having a really hard time.”