Harris Questions CBP Commissioner on Economic Impact of San Ysidro Port of Entry Closing, Trafficking Prosecutions
WASHINGTON, DC — At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee today, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) pressed Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan on the reasoning behind last month’s five-hour closure of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, as well as the economic impact of the border closing on the surrounding communities. The border closure last month resulted in a loss of $5.3 million for City of San Ysidro businesses alone, and across San Diego County, Imperial County, and Baja California approximately $255 billion of annual gross regional product depends largely on cross-border commerce.
“You can appreciate that there’s a lot of concern in that part of our state from business owners, especially when the President has threatened to ‘permanently close the border,’ that there would be real economic harm to that region. Have you met with the San Diego area elected officials and the Chamber of Commerce leaders to get feedback from them of their assessment of the economic impact of these policies? And if not, will you commit to doing so?” asked Harris.
McAleenan responded, “I will, and I did speak with Mayor Faulconer after this incident, and we’re in touch almost daily with SANDAG and the local Chamber of Commerce through our Director of Field Operations. I’m very concerned about the impact and will definitely continue that dialogue.”
Harris also asked McAleenan for data on the number of individuals that CBP has referred for criminal prosecution for trafficking in light of his previous statement that CPB has identified “fraudulent families,” as well as President Trump’s suggestion that people grab children at the border in order to make a false claim of asylum.
“I have asked your agency for data on how many individuals have been referred for prosecution of trafficking, and I’m told you’re not collecting that data, which seems inconsistent with a statement that this is a priority that there will be a criminal prosecution if people violate and break the laws—especially, I would think, our trafficking laws,” said Harris.
McAleenan agreed to share that data.
Full transcript of Harris’ questioning:
HARRIS: Commissioner, there’s been a lot of talk about the use of tear gas in November, and my question is: There have been public reports, I believe it was from Patrol Chief Agent Rodney Scott and then you today, that you are conducting an internal affairs investigation. Is that correct?
McALEENAN: It’s called a use of force review. It is aided by our Office of Professional Responsibility. It’s not an internal affairs investigation with an assumption of misconduct though.
HARRIS: Okay, but you are investigating what happened.
McALEENAN: All of our uses of force are reviewed.
HARRIS: Okay, and so to be clear, you’ve said in your testimony today that you will approach it and in the findings with transparency, so specifically will you commit to making all of your findings public and available to this committee?
McALEENAN: We have a process after a use of force review board is complete about publishing findings from the use of force review board, whether there’s tactics, trainings, procedures that have been identified for improvement. And yes, I’ll share that with the committee.
HARRIS: Okay, and were your agents wearing body-worn cameras during this incident? I know that Chief Agent Scott has mentioned that there’s a lot of video from the incident.
McALEENAN: Yes, obviously there was a lot of cameras out there. Both open-source media has a number of videos. Most of them are from the south side. We do have imagery from our fixed cameras on the border, some from air assets. We’re packaging all of that together--
HARRIS: About body-worn cameras?
McALEENAN: --very dynamic. No, we did not actually have body-worn cameras deployed with these agents, but we’re actually the first federal agency to pilot the use of body-worn cameras. We’re expanding that now into operational deployments.
HARRIS: And I want to commend you for that, because I know that you conducted a feasibility study in 2015. You found that CBP could benefit from body-worn cameras, and I commend you for your leadership on that. And I agree with your reasons. Also, can you please then, as a follow-up to that point, commit to providing us with a written-up date on your progress in implementing the body-worn cameras pilot?
HARRIS: Okay, great. As you’ve acknowledged and there’s been discussion again regarding the November 25th incident at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. You know and there’s been discussion this morning that that port sees 73 million border crossings a year and it’s at the heart of over $250 billion of annual gross regional product from San Diego and Imperial Counties and neighboring Baja California. So my question is: I appreciate the security concerns that you’ve expressed and that existed at that time, but what I want to understand is why did the closure require up to 5 hours of closure?
HARRIS: Why that long? And given your agency’s mission and, in particular, to also facilitate legal trade and commerce, how did you weigh the harmful effects on commerce--
HARRIS: --against your concerns about security?
McALEENAN: Very important question, senator. I could not agree more. It’s an economic engine for that region of California and more broadly around the country. I personally wrote into our operational plan the need to maximize legitimate trade and travel while we made sure that any caravan arrival would be managed in a safe way, so I delegated that authority to the lead field coordinator in San Diego area. He made that decision based on what was presented to him, in terms intelligence from our Mexican counterparts, imagery we had about large groups still very active in that region for that full five hours. They actually opened it up a little bit before they felt that we had full resolution, because they thought it was a secure enough situation. And they worked very hard to catch up on the traffic backlogs.
HARRIS: And the process by which that decision was made for it to be closed for that length of time, is that part of your review of the incident?
McALEENAN: Absolutely, it has to be documented. The reasons for it and the length of it.
HARRIS: And you can appreciate that there’s a lot of concern in that part of our state from business owners, especially when the President has threatened to “permanently close the border,” that there would be real economic harm to that region. And so, as a follow-up to that point, have you met with the San Diego area elected officials and the Chamber of Commerce leaders to get feedback from them of their assessment of the economic impact of these policies? And if not, will you commit to doing so?
McALEENAN: I will, and I did speak with Mayor Faulconer after this incident, and we’re in touch almost daily with SANDAG and the local Chamber of Commerce through our Director of Field Operations. I’m very concerned about the impact and will definitely continue that dialogue.
HARRIS: Okay, and provide us with any documentation in terms of your analysis of what happened in looking in the rearview mirror but also what improvements can be made to protocols and policy going forward, and training.
Shifting the topic, the President on November 27 declared that, “You have a lot of people that grab children at the border,” suggesting that there are a lot of people who falsely pose as asylum-seeking families in an attempt to enter the country. Secretary Nielsen also told Congress that DHS was separating families to protect children from trafficking. You have stated that the CBP has identified 600 “fraudulent families in the past year.”
So my question is how many of these cases has CBP referred for criminal prosecution, especially since Secretary Nielsen has repeatedly declared “our policies if you break the law, we will prosecute you,” because I have asked your agency for data on how many individuals have been referred for prosecution of trafficking, and I’m told you’re not collecting that data, which seems inconsistent with a statement that this is a priority that there will be a criminal prosecution if people violate and break the laws, especially I would think our trafficking laws. So I’m attempting to reconcile a priority that apparently is the basis for separating children from what might be their parents.
Can you explain why you’re not collecting this data, and how it is that we can determine if trafficking is actually happening if there's no criminal referral for prosecution?
McALEENAN: So we are tracking our criminal referrals carefully, and we can certainly cross-designate that with the folks that have been part of a fraudulent family unit, so we’ll share that with the committee as well.
HARRIS: Okay, I appreciate that. Thank you.
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