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Border chief urges Congress 'to act' as 'breaking point' hits the southern border

'That breaking point has arrived this week at our border'

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan has urged Congress to take action as the immigration system has reached its "breaking point."

"Two weeks ago, I briefed the media and testified in Congress that our immigration system was at the breaking point. That breaking point has arrived this week at our border," McAleenan said Wednesday during a news conference in El Paso, Texas.

"CBP is facing an unprecedented humanitarian and border security crisis all along our Southwest border and nowhere has that crisis manifested more acutely than here in El Paso," he added. "Here in El Paso, we have almost 3,500 migrants in custody this morning, in facilities designed for many fewer. We had over 1,000 apprehensions on Monday. The vast majority are families from Central America."

This week, more than 12,000 migrants are in custody across the nation, according to CBP.

"The agency considers 4,000 to be a high number of migrants in custody and 6,000 to be at a crisis level," the agency said in a release. "More than 12,000 migrants in custody is unprecedented."

The agency is on pace to record more than 100,000 apprehensions in March.

"It would be the highest monthly total in a decade," the release said.

What are the demographics of those in custody?

More than half of those apprehended this month crossed the border as part of a family unit.

"To put this in more recent context, we will see over 55,000 family units alone," McAleenan told reporters.

That number is more than three times higher than the total of all apprehensions during the same month two years ago.

"In March of 2017, when we were at historic lows, we saw 16,794 crossings total including all demographics, adults, families, and children," he said.

Another 35 percent of the illegal crossings are single adults who attempt to evade arrest at the border, according to CBP.

Thousands more are a direct threat to public safety.

"And within that flow are thousands of smugglers, gang members, and public safety threats," McAleenan explained. "That means our security at the border is negatively impacted.

"The same criminal organizations that are smuggling migrants, profiting from them, abusing them in the journey are benefiting from reduced security presence," he continued.

Why is there such an increase in illegal crossings?

McAleenan said there is no question that the current border situation is "due to court orders that undermine the integrity of our immigration system."

Drug smugglers, gang members, and criminal organization use family units as a diversion to gain access into the country.

"The increase in family units is a direct response to the vulnerabilities of our legal framework for migrants and smugglers know that they will be released and allowed to stay in the U.S. indefinitely pending immigration proceedings that could be many years out," McAleenan added.

Why does the agency need more resources?

The increase in illegal crossings has negatively impacted "the morale of our team," McAleenan said.

The agency has also expanded its medical efforts, which means fewer officers are available to secure the border. Instead, CBP officers have spent tens of thousands of hours making medical transports and hospital watches.

"CBP is taking more than 60 migrants to the hospital each day and has dedicated almost 100,000 hours of officer and agent time to medical transport and hospital watch," McAleenan said.

Medical screenings are conducted on all children 17 and under. The agency said it has continued to see high numbers of sick children with fevers of 105 degrees, flu, lice, chicken pox, and other severe illnesses. The expanded medical checks and CBP personnel's concerted efforts are saving lives, but at a high cost to the enforcement mission, McAleenan said.

There are too few shelters, beds, and food for the influx of migrants, according to CBP.

The agency has called on non-governmental agencies for assistance and to provide additional resources for the humanitarian crisis.

McAleenan said Congress must address how the court is handling cases, as well as provide immediate funding and resources to CBP, and its partners at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Health and Human Services.

"The only way to fundamentally address these flows is for Congress to act and to reinstate integrity into our immigration system," he said. " ... We are asking for and calling for again today on behalf of our agents on behalf of the migrants who are vulnerable in our custody to address this broken system."

What else does CBP say should happen?

McAleenan said CBP needs to have the resources to detain families together for about four to eight weeks. During that time, the families would work through the immigration court proceeding.

Those who don't have valid a claim for asylum would be repatriated. While, those with who do would be released to live in the U.S. with the certainty that they would be able to work through the system and receive asylum.

What else?

McAleenan said the agency is doing all it can to avoid tragedy.

"We are doing everything we can to simply avoid a tragedy in CBP but with these numbers, with these types of illnesses we're seeing at the border, I fear that it's just a matter of time," McAleenan said. "We are going to ask Mexico to do more and we're going to continue to do our level best to take care of vulnerable people in our custody,"

On Wednesday, McAleenan was set to speak before the House Appropriations Committee for a budget hearing, but the hearing was postponed.

Watch:

CBP Press Conference - Current Border Crisis youtu.be

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