New Mexico Congresswoman Concerned That Border Patrol 'Is Not Quickly Adapting'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to start the program today with another take on border security. And for that, we're going to turn to Democratic congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small. She represents New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District, and she sits on the House Homeland Security Committee. Now, she was part of that blue wave you heard so much about last November. She took an open seat that had been held for most of the last four decades by Republicans. But she and Republican Congressman Will Hurd of Texas recently introduced two pieces of bipartisan legislation meant to address challenges facing Customs and Border Protection. And Representative Torres Small is with us now.
Congresswoman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
XOCHITL TORRES SMALL: Michel, thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: So, you know, the legislation you introduced with Republican Congressman Will Hurd focuses specifically on changes you think are necessary to be made to Customs and Border Protection. Now, you know, I think many people know that some of your colleagues on the Democratic side have called for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be abolished entirely.
Now, I think we can all agree that their perspective on this has been misunderstood. They're not saying that there shouldn't be any kind of border security at all. What they're saying is that the current arrangement, the current institutions aren't functioning and that they say we should, you know, scrap that and start over. But what do you say needs to be done?
TORRES SMALL: My concern with that approach is that there's a failure to be willing to work with everyone to find the right solutions. And there's a failure to be willing to identify that we do have to enforce our laws, and we have to enforce our laws in a way that reflects our values. So I think what we need to do is identify what our needs are along every stretch of our U.S.-Mexico border and find the right ways to fill them.
So that's why one of the first piece of legislation that I introduced with Congressman Will Hurd as well as Congressman Dan Crenshaw asks Customs and Border Protection to put together a recruitment and retention strategy for our rural areas because we lack the personnel that we need there. And it's hard to keep folks in these areas where they're most needed, especially as we see the changing flows and people who are voluntarily presenting, sometimes in these remote areas that lack that infrastructure and network - with health care providers, for example.
MARTIN: I understand that what you're saying is that there's a turnover problem in these areas. But is the issue here the turnover? Is the issue that there aren't enough people there to begin with?
TORRES SMALL: My concern is that there aren't people in the right places. And that's because it's harder to keep people. We've got that turnover problem in our most remote areas. I'm also concerned that CBP is not quickly adapting to these changing circumstances. For example, all of this discussion about a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border really doesn't focus on the fact that we're seeing more people voluntarily presenting along the border, and a wall would not be effective in addressing that.
Instead, we need to do things like have more immigration judges along the border to help clarify the asylum process and get to a quicker resolution. We need more people to help process these claims, and we need the technology to do so. Right now, there are places along the U.S.-Mexico border with such poor internet connection that it's making that processing time even longer. So if we looked at the resources that were really needed to face the problem now and took a bipartisan approach instead of trying to score political points against each other, I think we'd have a much better opportunity to address this situation.
MARTIN: Part of what I think I hear you saying, though, is that some of the entities working in that area don't have the right skillset for the problem that is actually there, which is that people who need - and I think what I hear you saying is you need social workers. And one of the reasons I raise that is one of the children who died, one of the migrant children who died in custody, in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection - you know, well, one of them came to the U.S. through your district, and one of the children died in your district. And a lot of people have raised questions about, you know, how that could have happened.
And what I - one of the things I think I hear you saying is perhaps the people who - to whom these children were presented didn't have the right skills to understand what was going on with them. Is that part of what's going on here?
TORRES SMALL: Michel, I think you're right. It's two separate things. We need the resources and the people with the skills necessary to process individuals who are voluntarily presenting. We also need the medical training necessary to do initial screenings and then to identify when it's necessary - not simply relying on parents' words, but when it's necessary to take someone to receive more care. We need to make sure that the facilities are better equipped to address those situations. And then we need to have enough agents who are able to do their job of stopping people who are trying to evade detection, which is still happening.
And folks are very concerned. Law enforcement that I've talked to are frustrated that they're not able to, one, do their job with the people who are voluntarily presenting and make sure that they have a safe place to be held and, two, that they're not able to identify other people who are trying to evade detection because they are so overburdened with the processing of people who are voluntarily presenting.
MARTIN: That is Representative Xochitl Torres Small. She represents New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District.
Congresswoman, thanks so much for talking with us. I hope this will be our first conversation, not our only conversation about this complicated topic.
TORRES SMALL: Michel, thanks so much for taking the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.