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Texas congressman says Trump should prioritize border security not wall



Two migrant children died this month while in Border Patrol custody, days after being held in border detention centers.

Their deaths have sparked national outrage over the conditions in which migrants, particularly children, are held in after crossing the border. Their deaths come at the same time as President Donald Trump’s demand for $5 billion in border wall funding has shut down the government, leaving Democrats and Republicans at odds over what the country’s investment in border security should be.

For Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar, whose district includes a stretch of the border, the answer is simple: invest in alternative methods of border security, not on the wall. The Border Patrol in particular, he said, is in desperate need of more funding.

Reached via phone on Thursday, Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo, had just finished meeting with Border Patrol officers. He told INSIDER he doesn’t believe in a “14th century solution called a wall.”

“All you have to do is buy a $100 ladder and you can take care of billions of dollars,” Cuellar said. “I’ve asked every single Border Patrol Chief [who served under] Bush, Obama, and Trump, ‘how much time does a wall or fence buy you?’ They all have said basically the same thing: ‘a few minutes or a few seconds, depending on who wants to cross.'”

Cuellar, who lives on the border, said there are other ways of securing the border that would be more cost-effective, and reasonable, than a wall.

“Even the basic equipment that they need is not working,” Cuellar said. The representative, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and is considered one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, said Border Patrol agents often tell him they don’t have the budget to fix or replace malfunctioning equipment.

“I’ve been with Border Patrol in the middle of night and they’ll tell me: ‘See those cameras over there, congressman? The one on the right works. The one on the left doesn’t work.'” he said. “I asked why can’t you all get them fixed? ‘Well,’ they said, ‘we don’t have any money.'”

Agents, he said, will sometimes pay for equipment out of their own pocket.

But besides funding for equipment, Cuellar said, what the Border Patrol most desperately needs is more space, enhanced facilities, and increased staffing.

“The Border Patrol facilities need to be updated. In fact, they’re billions of dollars behind on updates and upgrades on those facilities,” he said.

Facilities like the one where 7-year-old Guatemalan migrant, Jakelin Caal, died are known as a “forward bases” and are among the most understaffed within BP and CBP, according to Cuellar. The New Mexico facility that the little girl reached hours before she passed away, for example, was staffed by only four agents the night she arrived. And then agents who staff facilities like this, Cuellar said, often don’t have “the proper equipment that they need to do their jobs.”

“If they don’t have enough Border Patrol agents, they certainly don’t have the medical technicians,” he said. “Things have changed where we have to look at providing more medical care for the people that come in those situations.”

CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, in the agency’s defense, said CBP has more than 1,500 emergency medical technicians on staff and that officers are taking dozens of sick children to hospitals every day.

“This is an extraordinarily rare occurrence,” McAleenan told “CBS This Morning” of the two children’s deaths. “It’s been more than a decade since we’ve had a child pass away anywhere in a CBP process, so this is just devastating for us.”

The facilities, McAleenan added, “were built 30 to 40 years ago for single adult males.”

“We need a different approach. We need help from Congress. We need to budget for medical care and mental health care for children in our facilities,” he said.

Border Patrol holding facilities, Cuellar explained, are supposed to only hold people for a short period of time — 48, 72 hours — and are not equipped to hold people long-term.

“Some of them don’t even have showers, they have to find a place to get them the shower,” Cuellar said. “We have to update the Border Patrol checkpoints, the Border Patrol facilities, instead of wasting money on the on the wall.”

The number of Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection agents has also dropped. In 2012, CBP employed over 21,000 Border Patrol officers. As of 2017, the agency employed only 19,437 of these agents.

This year, the Trump Administration paid a private company $13.6 million to recruit thousands of Border Patrol agents. So far, however, they’ve only hired two.

“I was telling the Border Patrol, I said ‘Man, I hope these guys are part of the Avengers or Captain America,'” Cuellar said. “15 million dollars to hire two people, man. They better be very good.”

Border Patrol, Cuellar said, is losing staffers because many would rather work for Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE) or CBP, since those jobs tend to have better hours and are usually not stationed in rural areas.

Cuellar has also suggested funding alternative ways of detention, such as ankle monitors, that could help avoid overcrowding and understaffing in detention facilities. He also spoke of exploring artificial intelligence technology — which he said was pitched to him by what he described as a former shareholder of a major tech company in his mid-20s — that, for a fraction of the money Trump is demanding for the wall, would sense movement among the border and deploy drones that would then follow migrants as they approach the country.

The representative remains confident that in a House controlled by Democrats there will be increased oversight over CBP and BP operations. Members of the Hispanic Caucus have already called for investigations into the deaths of the two migrant children, as well as the conditions in detention centers. Cuellar said not enough attention has been placed on the Border Patrol facilities like the one in New Mexico where Jakelin Caal first arrived.

“Democrats are going to bring a very different perspective and I think we can work with the Senate,” he said. “For example, Republican Senator John Cornyn and myself, in a bipartisan way, we work together on a lot of issues. He gets it, he understands it, and I think we’ll be able to work on things with the Senate, even though it’s a Republican majority. I just hope that President Trump will understand that.”

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