Moderator: Greetings to 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 across the region. I would like to note for our participants a change in speaker from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who I will introduce shortly.
This is an on-the-record briefing with Robert Perez, Deputy Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Tae Johnson, Senior Official performing the duties of the Deputy Director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Deputy Commissioner Perez and Senior Official Johnson will provide an update on U.S. immigration policy and then take questions from participating journalists.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation in Spanish for this briefing. I request everyone to keep that in mind and speak slowly.
I’ll now turn it over to Deputy Commissioner Perez for his opening remarks.
Mr. Perez: Thank you, Namita, and good afternoon, everyone. I’d first like to thank the State Department for coordinating this event and for this opportunity. And I also want to thank all the members of the media for their participation and interest in the call and the topics that we’ll cover today, certainly in CBP’s – Customs and Border Protection’s, or CBP for short, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE’s mission.
Border security is essential for our country’s national and economic security. So today I’d like to talk about a few things. First, the dangers for illegal aliens who try to travel to the U.S. border and the dangers they face when they try to cross it; the futility of making such a journey; what we have done to shore up the border against illegal immigration, including the border wall and partnerships with the governments in Mexico and Central America; and the numbers that show our policies are working.
Trying to the cross the U.S. border illegally is a dangerous proposition. It is a dangerous journey to the border, and it’s a dangerous – and it is dangerous to cross the border illegally. Even before they reach the U.S. border, migrants face thousands of miles of dangerous and deadly conditions along the way. In addition, those traveling the route are exploited by criminals who often assault, rob, kidnap, and extort them, and all of this doesn’t take into account the diseases migrants are exposed to, particularly this past year and continually, as we speak now, the ongoing challenges with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
There is no – there are no better – pardon me, things are no better once they reach the border. In this past fiscal year in 2020, our border patrol agents disrupted nearly 400 over-crowded stash houses where people are crammed into filthy, unsanitary conditions. We also rescued in CBP more than 5,000 individuals found struggling in rivers, remote deserts, and rugged mountains, or at times locked inside tractor trailers and – or even those found with life-threatening injuries after trying to dangerously scale the 30-foot border wall being built along our border.
I’d like to offer and share with you a few brief recent examples. In late July of this year, a Border Patrol agent found a Mexican national man lying in a field after he had fallen from the border wall in Arizona. Saving this man’s life obviously became the top priority for that agent, and he did. However, in spite of our efforts and the efforts of that agent to get him immediate medical care at a local hospital, the man later died from the injuries he sustained from that fall. And in a heartbreaking story from just last weekend, we found in CBP four young children from Honduras and El Salvador aged between four and seven years old by themselves, wet and shivering from the cold, along the banks of the Rio Grande River after a heartless smuggler risked their lives by having them cross the river in a raft. Just imagine that for a second. The depravity exhibited in this case is without question. In the end, trying to cross the U.S. border illegally is a losing proposition.
Previously, illegal aliens could enter the U.S., claim asylum, and disappear into the interior of the country while they waited for a hearing that could take weeks, months, or even years to come about. But through the network of initiatives and operational programs implemented over the past two years, we in CBP are sending a clear message: catch and release is over. Illegal migrants will no longer be released into our country. They will no longer be able to abscond without consequence, and they will be quickly returned to their country of origin. And for those who are pending an immigration hearing in the United States, they will wait in Mexico throughout the duration of their proceedings. And the reality is that U.S. immigration judges find that over 99 percent of those arriving don’t even merit asylum, further making their dangerous voyage and lengthy wait all for naught.
We have also taken other additional extraordinary measures to make the border more secure, because border security is national security. Since January of 2017, we have now added nearly 380 miles of new border wall system. It’s a real barrier and it works. Combining physical barriers and advanced technology, we have created a complete and effective enforcement zone that not only allows us to respond immediately to illegal entries and other illicit activities, but it also deters the illegal entries themselves.
As you may recall, in 2019 we saw an unprecedented humanitarian crisis as nearly a million illegal aliens, mostly from Central America, tried to cross the U.S. border illegally. But with the end of catch and release and the enhancements we’ve put at the border, as well as the partnerships with the Government of Mexico and our counterparts throughout Central America, we saw our overall encounters along the Southwest border drop from almost 1 million in 2019 to less than 458,000 in 2020, a 53 percent reduction.
Our partnerships with the Government of Mexico and the countries of the Northern Triangle have never been stronger. We are confronting the global pandemic and exacerbated migration crises as regional partners. Look no further than the migrant caravan disrupted earlier this month for proof of that very fact.
Just today, earlier, I participated in a discussion with our regional partners throughout the hemisphere and emphasized the important role we all have in preventing tragedy, saving lives, and protecting regional public health through our complimentary efforts.
In closing, I hope I’ve painted a clear picture as to the realities of why illegal, unregulated migration is dangerous, futile, and while in the midst of a global pandemic also represents a serious public health risk to everyone and every country in the region. Now more than ever, for the sake of individual and public health and safety, we encourage anyone thinking of making the dangerous journey to stay home. Invest your talents and efforts to make your communities better. Make your communities safer and more prosperous, and take pride in being part of the pandemic recovery every nation is pursuing and working very diligently on right now.
Thank you very much, and I’d like to at this point hand over the microphone to Acting Deputy Director for ICE Tae Johnson.
Moderator: Sir, if I may interject. AT&T, we’ve got some issue with the question queue. If you can please open it, and I would like to ask our participants to press 1 and 0 if they’d like to join the question queue. And with that – I’m sorry for the interruption; it’s a technical issue we’re having. And with that, now over to Acting Deputy Director Johnson for his opening remarks. Thank you.
Mr. Johnson: Thank you, and good afternoon, everyone. I would also like to thank the State Department for putting this together and the various media outlets for participating in this very important event.
As Acting Deputy Director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, I want to take this opportunity to talk about ICE’s role in immigration enforcement and the very – and the very important work that our officers do each and every day. Our primary responsibility is to protect our homeland, our communities, and the American people. We discharge this responsibility through the enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws and hundreds of criminal statutes. We enforce our nation’s immigration laws by identifying, locating, apprehending, and removing individuals who violate those laws, including dangerous criminals, human rights violators, and terrorists from the country, working in partnership with federal, state, and local law enforcement officials, as appropriate.
While we do not turn a blind eye to any immigration violator, our priority is targeting criminal aliens, many of whom are repeat offenders who prey on men, women, and children in our communities, committing very serious crimes. This has certainly been a challenging year during a time when all of our nations have been impacted by a global pandemic. In light of lessons learned since the beginning of the pandemic, the ICE workforce demonstrated an ability to adjust and adapt to this environment while we ensured that our officers properly and safely carried out the mission.
In our day-to-day operations, the focus is on public safety and national security threats, and those who are subject to mandatory detention while keeping in mind the safety and well-being of all involved. Even during this pandemic, ICE remains committed to faithfully executing, as written, the laws Congress has passed and preserving the integrity of our nation’s immigration system. ICE recently completed an operation known as Operation Rise. During this operation, we identified, located, and arrested over 300 immigrant fugitives that freely roamed our streets. The results included the apprehension of those convicted of murder, child sex offenses, drunk drivers, domestic violence offenders, and others.
In phase 1, which took place in California, more than 95 percent of those arrested had a criminal record or outstanding charges pending. In phase 2, we focused on six other noncooperative locations commonly referred to as “sanctuary cities,” to include Philadelphia, New York, Denver, Seattle, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. This is important because many of the individuals who endeavor to make the long, dangerous journey intend to live in these sanctuary locations. Operation Rise is just one example of the efforts ICE is taking to enforce federal immigration law consistently across the country, regardless of sanctuary policies and other obstacles ICE must overcome.
While operations such as these highlight important efforts, the men and women of ICE work daily to protect the American public. Our message is clear. Sanctuary city or not, our mission will not stop. We will take those who break our immigration laws off our streets, and we will swiftly remove them from the United States.
Let me end by saying that the men and women of ICE care about the safety of the American people, and take their duties seriously. We will not stop tracking down violent offenders and removing them from the United States. This is our responsibility, and it’s a key part of the agency’s mission.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this event, and I’m happy to answer any questions. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Before we start, AT&T, could you please open the question and answer queue? We continue to have logistical issues with that page on conference monitor. Now —
AT&T Operator: We are all showing the conference Q&A as being open since the beginning. It’s just not viewable on your end, apparently.
Moderator: Interesting. Okay. Now, for those on the English line asking questions – and I will indicate that in case it becomes visible on my conference monitor – please say your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing. If you submitted your question in advance, I have incorporated them into the queue.
Our first question will go to Celeste Andino from Honduras, Nacion y Mundo. “If a new immigrant caravan leaves Honduras for the United States, what measures will you take? Will the organizers and promoters of these caravans be sanctioned?”
Mr. Perez: Thank you, Namita. Deputy Commissioner Perez here. I’ll take that one. So what I would say there is as we saw with the recent caravan, again, that I referenced in my opening remarks, we in the United States alongside our regional partners took very swift actions to discourage and disband the caravan from making any significant progress from when it – and how they started. This included the repatriation of the majority of the caravan back to Honduras.
Again, I can’t say enough about the degree of cooperation and collaboration we had with our Central American partners, with Mexico as well, who sent a very clear message, not unlike all of us, that the caravans will not be an acceptable form of movement for any of us, and again expressing and reminding those who were embarking upon this journey of how dangerous it was to even contemplate beginning such a journey, particularly in light of the global pandemic, which, again, we believe is important that everybody be mindful that that really takes the dangers for all involved to another level by way of the public health risks that they would – that they would endure. And so I think the main point here is that we’re trying to save lives by asking everyone to follow their countries’ travel restrictions. Do not believe in the false promises and empty promises that are often peddled by those trying to organize these types of journeys. And as – again, as I mentioned earlier, it is a futile endeavor to embark in any of these caravans.
And to the second part of the question, regarding the organizers and promoters, if they will be sanctioned – that is absolutely a part of what is the collaborative work that we do with our international counterparts within the parameters of each of our legal systems. And so, again, those who are found to be breaking the law in – through the entirety of that activity from where they’re at, falling, again, within the parameters of that particular country’s legal system, they will be held to account to the extent possible.
Again, the main message here is don’t even start. It is way too dangerous and just full of false promises.
Moderator: For the next question, AT&T, can you please go to the first person in the queue? For the journalist, please state your name and affiliation?
Operator: Okay, we do have one. We’ll go to the line of Isabella Gonzalez from Reforma newspaper in Mexico City. Please go ahead.
Question: Hola, buenas tardes. Yo quería preguntarles si tienen los datos de cuántos mexicanos han cruzado últimamente la frontera de manera ilegal, y si eso representa un aumento en comparación con el año pasado o en comparación con otros años. Muchas gracias.
Mr. Perez: Gracias, Isabela. Again, this is Deputy Commissioner Perez, and just for the sake of clarity I’m going to respond in English, although I understood the question.
So as far as Mexican nationals crossing illegally, this past year in 2020 compares to 2019 we did see a modest increase. The total number of Mexican illegal crossings in this past year was just under 300,000, compared to the year prior in 2019, which was just over 230,000. That equates to about a 26 percent increase, Isabella. Also, I’ll point out that the vast majority of those that we’re encountering are single adult males crossing the border seeking economic opportunities rather than and compared to the families and the minors that we had seen in the year prior, which also were predominantly emanating from the Northern Triangle. In fact, in 2020, 53 percent of all of our illegal encounters consisted – consisted of Mexican nationals.
The last point I’ll share with you, Isabella, is that in addition to those data points, it’s very important that even to our partners to the south – and we speak of it often – that the inherent dangers, the health consequences, and all – again, the futility that we described or I described earlier is absolutely still relevant here. Despite nationality, despite where they’re coming from, it is equally dangerous, it is equally potentially consequential from a health – public health perspective, particularly given the global pandemic, and it’s an equally futile endeavor.
And so, again, the message to all those folks who would seek to cross illegally is: Don’t do it, for your own health and safety and for that of everybody else that you would encounter on the journey.
Moderator: The next question comes from Beatriz Diez from BBC News. “Are there imminent changes foreseen for the visas of non-immigrant academic students, exchange visitors, and representatives of foreign information media?”
Mr. Johnson: Hi. Tae Johnson from ICE, and I’ll take that one. So there are currently a notice of proposed rule-making published in the Federal Register, which will establish a fixed period for the admission of F, J, and I non-immigrants. So as part of that rule-making process, the public can comment on the notices of proposed rule-making. Those comments are reviewed and taken into consideration when drafting the final rule. So this regulatory change aims to help DHS enforce our nation’s immigration laws and promptly detect national security concerns while protecting the integrity of these non-immigrant programs. So there are some actions underway that will sort of change the way those non-immigrant visas are issued.
Moderator: We have time for one last question. The last question comes from Yolanda Magaña from El Mundo in El Salvador. The question is, “Will the United States continue with its policy of zero tolerance for undocumented or illegal immigration? And also, what is the last day for immigrants from El Salvador who ran out of TPS to return to their country? Will they be deported?”
Mr. Perez: Thank you, Namita. Tae, if it’s all right with you, I’ll take the first part of that question, the first question regarding whether we’re going to continue our policy as it’s referred to as zero tolerance for undocumented or illegal immigration.
I think what’s important to emphasize here, Yolanda and folks, is that we’re going to continue to utilize the network of initiatives and operational programs, the tools, if you will, that we have in place to address illegal migration. It’s – the message is pretty straightforward: We are just not going to tolerate the illegal migrants in the manner in which it had been in years past as far as being able to enter the U.S. without consequence in the same fashion that we have been preventing now for the better part of the last year and a half to two years.
As I mentioned earlier, the illegal crossing numbers have been moving in the right direction, meaning they’re lower last year than the year prior. And we have every intent to continue to utilize every one of those operational programs to expeditiously return illegal crossers back to their countries of origin. Those without a legitimate asylum claim are going to be expeditiously removed. And those who do make claims that need be adjudicated in our system, we will continue to work with our Mexican counterparts to have them await their asylum hearings in Mexico, and then adjudicate those as we need to. But again, main message here, folks, is that we are not going to stop building the border wall to prevent many of the dangerous, illicit activity, the criminal activity, all the illegal activity, and also gain better control of the entirety of the border, but just as importantly, also maintain the programs we’ve put in place that over the past year, year and a half have been very successful in deterring people from even thinking and starting to take this very dangerous journey.
Mr. Johnson: And I’ll jump in there and handle the second part of that question related to TPS. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is the agency that oversees the TPS program, so they would be better suited to sort of weigh in on when the last day for El Salvadorians to – before they would have to leave the U.S. What I will say is that ICE is the agency that is responsible for executing those removal orders, so if there is an individual who was particularly – who had been previously, sorry, granted TPS and it is no longer sort of in effect, then it would be ICE who sort of facilitates the removal of those individuals. Now, some will be deported, some may decide to leave on their own once the TPS is rescinded, but yes, at some point those individuals will be deported from the United States.
Moderator: And that concludes today’s call. We apologize for any technical issues during our call today. I want to thank Deputy Commissioner Perez and Senior Official Johnson 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 MiamiHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a good day.