Head Of U.S. Customs And Border Protection Talks Laredo Border Wall, Pandemic Impacts
The Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been on a tour of the Texas-Mexico border. Mark Morgan visited Laredo’s World Trade Bridge on Friday to give an update on CBP’s work.
In August, Morgan said, CBP encountered almost 50,000 people attempting to cross the U.S.’s Southwest border, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Laredo has also reported an uptick in human smuggling and drug trafficking. Last month, 600 CBP officers were sent to Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley to help with the increased activity.
TPR’s Maria Mendez also interviewed Morgan one-on-one. Here are highlights from the interview:
Mendez: What new challenges are you facing right now during the pandemic?
Morgan:We’re just like anyone else. Our workforce is impacted. Right now, we’ve had 11 employees die in the line of duty because of COVID-19. Right now, I have over a thousand employees that are active positive because of COVID.
Mendez: A group of residents and landowners are against the border wall project. They have been pointing to a July report from the DHS’ Office of the Inspector General that said “CBP has not demonstrated acquisition capabilities needed to execute the wall project.” What do you have to say about that criticism?
Morgan: It wasn’t so much about acquisition capabilities. It was also, part of that report suggested we didn’t have a plan of where exactly the border wall should go, and that’s just not true from my perspective. And we actually have a robust, it’s called BSIP, the Border Security Implementation Plan. It’s a very robust plan, a robust document, where it takes a litany of considerations into effect along the entire Southwest border, sector by sector to address what the need is along the Southwest border for a specific border wall system.
Mendez: Part of that plan includes the City of Laredo, but there’s been concern about access to parks or even private property like the Sacred Heart Children’s Home. Why is a wall needed in those areas?
Morgan: First of all, I disagree with the premise that most people are not for the wall. I actually believe that most people are for the wall, for giving CBP the tools to safeguard and protect this country, and that’s what the wall system does.
But here in Laredo, we have 122 miles that have been designated to be built in the Laredo sector, including downtown Laredo, what we call the bulkhead project. If you think about that, in some areas that’s exactly where it’s needed the most, where you have urban areas on both sides where someone could cross illegally and within seconds their off to the winds because their able to just blend into the community that’s right there.
Mendez: You say you think more people are actually for the wall. But there have been very vocal landowners and residents that are against it. They painted a street mural that says “Defund the wall.” So how are you going to address the concerns of the community here?
Morgan: We’ve been working with the city of Laredo for a very long time. There’s been countless meetings with the mayor, with Representative Cuellar. I personally have met with the mayor. I personally have met with Representative Cuellar on mutiple occasions to talk about their concern and really work together to come up with a compromise that I think is fair. And with the bulkhead project, I think that’s what we’ve reached collectively.
Mendez: Many Laredoans are looking at the election as the deciding factor for the wall project here. What have you heard about President Trump’s post-election plans for the wall? And what future would the wall have if former Vice President Joe Biden were to win?
Morgan:What I will tell you is this president, more than any other president in modern history, he has gone out there and listened to experts on the ground. He’s listened to CBP personnel and he’s listened to United States Border Patrol and asked them what they needed. From the very get-go they said ‘one of the tools we need is more wall,’ and he has delivered on that promise. Right now, not only are we going to reach 450 miles as promised before the end of this calendar year, but he actually, this president, has actually procured us enough money for 733 miles. So not only are we going to meet that goal, we’re actually going to exceed it.
Mendez: Mayor Pete Saenz recently called for Laredo to become a DHS or federal base. He said there are serious talks about placing a Border Patrol campus here. What are the prospects of that?
Morgan: So I’m not familiar with that specific project, but I’ll say, I applaud that. Now is not the time we should say “Defund law enforcement.” Now is the time we should be talking about opportunities where we can actually provide more resources. Get smarter like having joint operations, joint task forces, even joint locations.
Mendez: Another big issue for Laredo has been the nonessential travel restrictions. The restrictions have been in place now for almost six months. How much longer do you foresee them being extended, and what would it take for that travel to return?
Morgan:That’s really going to ultimately be the call of the medical experts, and that call is ultimately going to be made by the vice president, the coronavirus taskforce. They'll give advice to the president... We’re just going to have to see how that plays out. We’re going to have to continue to monitor what’s going on in the United States, as well as what’s going on in Mexico and in the Western Hemisphere… We know that Mexico, their positive cases and deaths are still happening, so that’s a great concern, so we gotta make sure that threat is at a point where we’re comfortable before we open back up.
María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria. She is a corps member of Report For America.
TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.