On a 90-degree day in early May, hundreds of migrants were gathered on American soil near a border gate in El Paso. Many waited for days, without food, shelter or enough water and bathrooms, before border patrol agents allowed them through the gate and took them to holding facilities.
A few miles away, in the air-conditioned El Paso Convention Center, senior government officials and security contractors gathered for an annual event showcasing the latest technology to help secure America’s borders: robotic dogs, watchtowers, rough-ground equipment, drones. and anti-drones.
The contrast in scenes illustrates a central challenge of the mission of Customs and Border Protection. The agency, which includes the Border Patrol, was created after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Its website reads, “Our top priority is to prevent terrorists and their weapons from entering the United States.”
While its mission has remained the same over the years, its responsibilities have grown. Besides securing the border, one of the most pressing problems it has faced in the past decade is a humanitarian one, driven by people coming across the border, many of whom are fleeing violence and poverty. Even as few pose security threats, the US government has sent the largest law enforcement agency in the country to arrest and then care for refugees.
“We have to evolve, extremely quickly,” Manuel Padilla Jr., assistant CBP commissioner, told the convention center a crowd of contractors selling military-grade equipment in May. “And that’s on the hike.”
CBP, the Homeland Security Department and the White House declined to comment on the record about the situation in El Paso.
The agency’s budget has always been heavily geared towards securing the border. For example, the agency invested in anti-drone equipment that could detect and take down a cartel-operated drone. By comparison, a minuscule amount of the budget goes towards providing shelter and care for influxes of idle migrants.
Although some senior officials have privately acknowledged a need to evolve, Mr. Padilla’s public sentiment is not universally shared.
Some in the border patrol want to focus on the agency primary mission: “to detect and prevent the illegal entry of individuals into the United States,” not caring them after they broke the law. Some see the humanitarian mission as an invitation for more illegal immigration. Republicans want agents to enforce the law, even though it is decades out of date.
These disagreements are just one piece of the larger, volatile debate over the country’s immigration policies. Even so, scenes of thousands of desperate migrants turning into Border Patrol agents have become the face of it.
When CBP first saw this migration trend in 2014, some officials believed that other federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Health and Human Services, would be better suited to lead the response.
Gil Kerlikowske, the CBP commissioner during the Obama administration, said that idea was not welcome when he brought the issue to senior officials. “This is the limit, and this is your problem,” he told him.
In that sense, not much has changed.
The Homeland Security Department, where CBP resides, may request assistance from other federal agencies during times of high illegal crossings. But ultimately, it is CBP’s responsibility.
Successive administrations have focused on ways to reduce the number of illegal crossings and avoid a humanitarian crisis on the US side of the border.
The Trump administration has launched punitive policies to prevent migrants from crossing the border, in one case, separating families, and in others, limiting access to asylum.
The Biden administration, which has seen the largest influx of migrant crossings at the southern border at a time when more people are being displaced globally than ever before, has focused on narrowing eligibility for asylum and adding some new legal routes to enter the country.
But because such policies are set by the executive branch and change frequently, lasting impact is unlikely.
Without the political will to reorganize CBP to support its humanitarian mission, the agency will likely continue to rely on temporary solutions, as it has for the past decade.
When spikes in migration threaten to overwhelm resources, CBP can add temporary holding facilities. The agency has also made significant progress since 2014 to ensure that the facilities are more suitable for children and stocked facilities with food, water, baby formula, diapers and other necessities.
CBP has hired hundreds of people to process migrants and perform administrative work, relieving Border Patrol agents who have been temporarily reassigned to those roles. And President Biden asked for a $4.7 billion crisis reserve for fiscal year 2024 to make it easier to access funds in an emergency.
The flaws in this ad hoc response were evident in El Paso before the expiration of a pandemic-era health initiative known as Title 42 in early May. The Biden administration spent nearly two years planning for the expiration of the policy, which they expected would bring its largest influx of migrants to date. Officials predicted that El Paso would be one of the most popular crossing points.
However, hundreds of migrants, many of whom had made long and dangerous journeys to reach the United States, waited behind a border gate, where they were largely shielded from public view. The border facilities were full.
When some migrants arrived at the CBP processing centers, they were so dehydrated and smeared with sand that agents struggled to get their fingerprints, according to the U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and described the situation on condition of anonymity. .
CBP did not say how many people had been waiting for days. A senior official said there is no formal decision to keep migrants out for extended periods when facilities are out of space. It was similar situation in San Diego. The official, authorized only to speak anonymously, defended the agency’s response and its delivery of supplies to those held outside in El Paso. Another CBP official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the agency has an obligation to provide proper care for the migrants, but doing so has been difficult because the highest priority has been moving them from the border and into a detention center.
Hours before the change in border policies on May 11, Raul Ortiz, the recently retired head of the Border Patrol, stood near the gate in El Paso that prevented about 1,000 migrants from walking further into the country. At times that week there were more than 2,500 people there, he said, yet supplies were delivered only that afternoon.
The backup in sending the migrants to facilities was far from the vision that Mr. Ortiz described in the exhibition hall a day before. “I want our processing facilities to be operated like Chick-fil-As,” he said, a reference to the fast-food chain’s quick service.
The refugee response should be an established part of the agency, Mr. Ortiz said.
“You have a border security mission, and you have a humanitarian mission, and they sometimes collide,” Mr. Ortiz said at the El Paso security expo in May. “But as the leader of the Border Patrol and my fellow chiefs, we want to try to figure out how to manage those equally. And then you have to evolve as an organization.”
That could include, for example, the creation of a dedicated emergency response division or other force within CBP trained to manage an influx of refugees. But a concerted push for such change has not emerged.
“That’s a piece of work that’s never been focused on by any administration,” said Andrea Flores, a former White House official who worked on these issues in the Obama and Biden administrations.
Justin Hamel contributed reporting.