Everyone has the border story dead wrong

On an August morning in South Texas, a busload of mostly unaccompanied minors apprehended along the U.S.–Mexico border pulled up to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intake facility I was visiting along with legislators from 19 states. We were there as part of an educational trip sponsored by the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Military Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It was 106 degrees outside. Having walked across a desert for days, these children were hungry and exhausted. What I saw next changed my understanding of the humanitarian crisis at the border, and it’s a story that simply isn’t being told.

The Americans charged with protecting the border are on a humanitarian mission. They are not forced to be there; rather their presence is a sign of America’s caring heart. Their charge is to clothe, feed and cure people in dire straits. As the 52 people (mostly children, I say again) exited the bus for their initial check-in, they were met by medical personnel for initial screenings. Inside they received additional medical attention, and anyone with a 102-degree temperature or higher was taken directly to the local hospital. During the intake process, new arrivals were given food, water, clothing, shoes and hygiene products. They took showers. They ate. They slept. It was calm and quiet.

My briefer explained that for many, this was the first time they were safe or had a roof over their head in months.

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For many of those apprehended, peace of mind also came from clear and regular communications — something they almost certainly lacked while being smuggled through the desert. The CBP officers conducted intake and screening in the native languages of the detainees or provided translators for up to 40 different languages. Consular officials from Latin American countries had access to the facility, and detainees had the ability to call their consulates and embassies for assistance.

The system works. It works well. And, it puts American altruism at the forefront of our shared border mission.

But the resources offered and the deeply complex laws and legal judgments that govern a newly apprehended person’s routing are endlessly complex and create great challenges for individual and government alike. They also provide openings for organized crime syndicates to exploit America’s open arms.

The Border Patrol unit we shadowed is responsible for 120 miles of border that includes 277 meandering river miles of the Rio Grande. They patrol between legal ports of entry secured by a different federal agency. In just this area, CBP makes 1,000 apprehensions per day. On one day in May that number rose to 2,419. In just one 50-mile block of desert, they’ve apprehended more than 200,000 people since October 2018. All this from just one small section of the 2,000 mile border with Mexico. 

You see, the Mexican cartels aren’t traffickers in the traditional sense. They are highly orchestrated and strategic logistics companies. Their goal is to move product — whether it be money, drugs or people. And it’s far easier to move illicit products in one place if border agents are carrying out a humanitarian mission in another. It’s a smart strategy — one they can carry out daily because the traffickers know our laws and legal loopholes.

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We were told many of the smugglers are themselves children because children are released into foster care, where they quickly run away, cross back to Mexico and pick up another load of unaccompanied minors. The CBP knows this because the children smuggling their peers brazenly share their exploits. But it’s the law, and the CBP dutifully carries out its mission as instructed by Congress.

The CBP mission is supported by the Texas Military and Texas Department of Public Safety. And while 13 states play support roles — the South Carolina National Guard, I’m proud to say, has contributed a helicopter crew to the effort — the state of Texas spends more than $400 million annually on supporting the CBP mission.

But this isn’t a Texas problem. It’s a national security problem. It isn’t the Texas–Mexico border. It’s our nation’s border. Drug and human trafficking impact every community in every state. The cartels don’t care if you live in South Dakota or South Carolina. They only care if they make their delivery.

As a country, we are at our best when we care for others. And, that is what I saw at the border. Hand-in-hand, however, I also witnessed a major criminal enterprise exploiting both children and Lady Liberty’s golden door for their own benefit. It’s time to stop blaming the border. Let’s get real: It’s time for Congress to act.

Republican State Representative Alan Clemmons is a native of Myrtle Beach, S.C., and represents South Carolina’s 107th state district in the South Carolina legislature. He has a juris doctorate, serves as Chair of the Rules committee and is a member of the Ways and Means and Capital Improvements Bond Review committees.