Internal DHS documents reveal migrant abuse as border crossings hit record high

Detentions and arrests at America’s southern border hit an all-time high in 2021, according to new federal documents. More than 1.7 million migrants were detained at the border, in the 2021 fiscal year 61% of those were expelled under Title 42. William Brangham discusses the issue with Gil Kerlikowske, who served as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection under President Barack Obama.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, new federal numbers released late this afternoon show detentions and arrests at America's Southern border hit an all-time high in 2021.

    William Brangham.

  • William Brangham:

    According to data that's out today from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 1.7 million migrants were detained at the border in the 2021 fiscal year. Sixty percent of those were expelled under the public health policy known as Title 42. About a quarter of cases were repeat crossings.

    Those numbers come as Human Rights Watch released internal DHS files of more than 160 reports of alleged misconduct and abuse of asylum seekers by DHS officers. These included claims of molestation and physical and verbal abuse.

    For more on all of this, I'm joined by Gil Kerlikowske. he served as commissioner of us Customs and Border Protection under President Obama. And, before that, he was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

    Gil Kerlikowske, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    I wonder if you could — let's start with this Human Rights Watch report. And I should indicate this is not Human Rights Watch reporting. These are internal documents they got of complaints that were made of this awful behavior by DHS agents against them.

    What do you make of that?

    Gil Kerlikowske, Former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner: A couple of things.

    One, you have to understand that it wasn't really until 2014 that Customs and Border Protection actually got their own robust internal affairs. That had been outsourced. And so you need accountability, you need investigations, and you need to be able to do discipline. And that is still an ongoing issue.

    But the number of complaints is certainly concerning. You have to remember, too, that Border Patrol has over 20,000 agents. They have had literally, during the time that those numbers came forward, millions of encounters with people crossing the border illegally. Some are just families. Some are willing, more than willing to surrender immediately.

    But there are other people that aren't quite as willing to surrender.

  • William Brangham:

    I hear everything that you're saying, but is — the critics would argue that this tells us something about the culture with — inside those agencies. What do you make of that?

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    So I think there's another side to the culture of that agency.

    And I got to see it firsthand in the summer of 2014, with 68,000 unaccompanied children being handled by the Border Patrol. I saw them bringing in T-shirts and clothing from their own kids at home. I saw them microwaving burritos, all without the support of other parts of the U.S. government.

    So, there is certainly that. Remember, too, that the Border Patrol is one of the most the is one of the most diverse, particularly with Hispanic officers, in the country. So there is probably only about one degree of separation.

    So I think that these complaints are serious. They need to be investigated thoroughly and discipline, where appropriate, needs to be taken.

  • William Brangham:

    OK, so let's turn to this seeming record number of people coming across the border from a large range of countries.

    Why do you believe this is occurring? Because the critics of the Biden administration argue that it is this administration's policies and this administration's more sort of open-ended and warm-hearted language that has invited this large number of people to come.

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    Well, I think, as the nominee for Customs and Border Protection said at his hearing the other day, the law needs to be enforced, but it needs to be enforced humanely.

    And, frankly, during the last four years under the Trump administration, I think that there was not the attention being paid to enforcing the law humanely, and I think that that is beginning to change, if that's as a result of President Biden and his seemed openness to people coming into the country. But, again, the law is still the law.

  • William Brangham:

    Another argument that is made by the critics of this administration is that a lot of the migrants that are coming across the border are coming with COVID-19 and that they're carrying enormous amounts of drugs with them.

    Is there any evidence that those accusations are true?

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    Well, certainly, the COVID issue has changed the way the Border Patrol and other parts of CBP interact with people, not only Title 42 that you mentioned, but remember that CBP has lost over 50 employees that have died as a result of COVID.

    I think part of the drug issue, though, is that it comes through our ports of entry. The drugs that kill people in this country, methamphetamine, fentanyl, et cetera, come through the ports of entry. They aren't being carried by a number of people trying to cross the border illegally between the ports of entry.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, Vice President Harris was asked about this today. And she, in part, blamed some of this on an asylum process that she argued was broken under the prior administration, that it just wasn't functioning that well, and that that is partly why we're seeing this issue on the border.

    Is that an accurate criticism?

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    Well, the asylum function hasn't worked very well for a long number of years, the number of immigration judges, the backlog of now close to a million people awaiting asylum hearings.

    The other thing that I think the general public doesn't understand is most people who apply for asylum never reach that threshold. They are denied asylum. And, therefore, they are returned to the country. But if they can't get the asylum hearing, that really tells you that the process is not working very well, if at all.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Gil Kerlikowske, former head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, thanks, as always, for being here.

  • Gil Kerlikowske:

    Thank you.

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