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California Border Patrol chiefs describe closed checkpoints, increased security threats

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California U.S. Border Patrol chiefs have expressed concerns about national security threats as a result of having to close checkpoints due to influxes that require shifting manpower from the field to process foreign nationals after they’ve illegally entered the U.S.

The agents were interviewed as part of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security’s investigation into the “dereliction of duty” of U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Interviews were conducted between April and September, prior to the unprecedented current surges southwest sectors are now experiencing.

Their responses “confirm the historic crisis at the Southwest border has affected the operations of Border Patrol agents in the field and limited their ability to conduct their homeland security mission, leading to more gotaways and the increased risk these individuals represent, as well as more drugs being smuggled by the criminal cartels across the border,” the committee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. Mark Green, MD, R-Tenn., said when announcing the latest batch of interview transcripts.

This is the third report on the transcripts, and only covers the interviews of California chiefs. The first covered most of the chiefs interviewed who explained how “illegal aliens are spreading the word the border is open,” incentivizing more illegal activity. The second described how agents nationwide were being reassigned to process and release “illegal aliens into the country rather than patrolling the border between ports of entry,” which has negatively impacted agent morale and increased security risks.

In the busiest of the two U.S. Customs and Border Protection sectors in California, San Diego Sector Chief Border Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke described the impact of closing Border Patrol checkpoints when illegal entries peaked in July of 2022 to roughly 16,000.

California shares the smallest portion of the Mexico border of 137 miles, nearly evenly split in terms of linear mileage between the El Centro and San Diego sectors. San Diego’s sector has 60-miles of land border and over 900 miles of coastline to patrol.

“We pulled resources off of the maritime side and then the checkpoint side and focused on the actual physical land border,” Heitke said. As a result, “We don’t see what’s going on in those areas” and agents are there to arrest those who they “miss on the border [who make it] further into the interior,” and “then narcotics that made it past as well.”

Agents in this sector routinely seize narcotics and interdict illegal foreign nationals at four checkpoints in this sector. With the higher volume of people, interior checkpoints were already shut down by the time of his interview he said, and patrol operations there “have been very, very sporadic.” As a result, agents are not screening people for immigration status or performing interdiction for smuggling of people or drugs.

Heitke explained that transnational criminal organizations charge extra for individuals who are seeking to evade apprehension, referred to as gotaways. “From what we have gathered from people, depending—it costs more to go through an area that has a better chance of getting away.”

He also expressed concern that gotaways who entered San Diego could pose potential terrorist threats and public safety threats. He said the sector reported 66,000 gotaways, but according to data obtained by The Center Square from a Border Patrol agent, San Diego Border Patrol agents apprehended 230,941 illegal border crossers and reported at least 97,520 gotaways, nearly half of those they apprehended in fiscal 2023.

He also explained that surges impact checkpoint staffing. Agents who would normally be manning the checkpoint are instead processing foreign nationals who illegally entered the U.S. Since he began overseeing the sector in April 2020, he said he’s had to shut down permanent checkpoints.

El Centro Sector Chief Border Patrol Agent Gregory Bovino said gotaways pose a national security threat. “Any got-away or any illegal alien for that matter presents a threat to national security or a threat to the taxpayer of the United States. We see that time and again, whether it’s planes crashing into buildings, or whether it’s, you know, the vast amount of American citizens that die each year at the hands of illegal aliens.”

“Anyone coming into the United States illegally … and remaining here illegally in the United States,” is concerning because it’s unclear who could commit a crime. “When you look at a parent and they’re worried about a closed casket for their kid, it takes on a different—a different perspective,” he said.

In fiscal 2023, San Diego Sector agents reported the fifth-highest number of illegal entries along the southwest border of roughly 500,000, The Center Square reported. El Paso and Del Rio sectors in Texas had the most, followed by Tucson Sector in Arizona, and Rio Grande Valley Sector in Texas.

The committee’s report confirmed there were at least 1.7 million known and reported gotaways who’ve illegally entered nationwide since President Joe Biden first took office, which The Center Square previously reported. “Gotaways” is the official CBP term defining those who illegally enter the U.S. primarily between ports of entry, intentionally seeking to evade capture by law enforcement, and who don’t turn back to Mexico. CBP doesn’t publicly report this data. The Center Square has reported it after obtaining it from a Border Patrol agent on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Gotaway totals are a minimum number only, officials have explained. Official data is still a best guess because agents aren’t able to report every gotaway for several reasons. Former Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz previously testified to Congress that gotaway data is underreported by between 10% and 20% and officials have no idea how many are in the U.S., where or who they are.

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