Jason Owens’ greatest challenge as new chief of the U.S. Border Patrol is improving agents’ morale, immigration experts say.
Border Patrol agents are “overwhelmed,” Andrew Arthur, a resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, told The Daily Signal.
“Improving morale amongst Border Patrol agents” will be Owens “biggest challenge,” Arthur said. Those agents, he said, “feel appropriately unappreciated by the Biden administration.”
“Morale must be in the tank,” Heritage Foundation scholar Simon Hankinson said.
Owens takes the helm of the Border Patrol on Friday with the retirement of Chief Raul Ortiz.
Concerns over morale stem in part from the loss of 17 U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees to suicide in 2022, the greatest number in over a decade.
Owens also steps into the chief’s position as encounters with illegal aliens at the southern and northern borders remain historically high compared to the numbers before President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.
Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, reported encountering over 2 million illegal aliens on America’s borders since fiscal year 2023 began Oct. 1. By comparison, in all of fiscal 2020, the agency said it encountered 646,822 illegal aliens.
Critics note that the increase occurred after Biden named Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, parent agency to the Border Patrol and CPB.
“Taking over command of the U.S. Border Patrol under the leadership of Secretary Mayorkas will be a thankless task,” Hankinson, a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Border Security and Immigration Center, said of Owens’ arrival. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s news outlet.)
Many congressional Republicans have joined Heritage and other conservative organizations in criticizing Mayorkas, arguing that the homeland security secretary has failed to enforce the nation’s immigration laws.
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., and Clay Higgins, R-La., introduced articles of impeachment against Mayorkas.
The Border Patrol always could use more resources, Hankinson said, but the problem isn’t a lack of trucks or staff, but “a deliberate policy by the Biden administration to allow as many illegal immigrants in as can physically be processed, and to use Border Patrol agents as social workers.”
The Biden administration pulled Border Patrol agents from the physical border to process the record number of illegal aliens entering the country, according to Mark Morgan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the Trump administration and now a visiting fellow in Heritage’s Border Security and Immigration Center.
Hankinson said he has witnessed “agents at the border handing out luggage tags, forming lines, entering data into a phone app, and helping inadmissible aliens get on buses.”
“Their role was more like Disney cast members than federal agents,” he said.
Hankinson added that the Biden administration’s policies likely harm morale:
The Border Patrol is being hamstrung in its core function—keeping out inadmissible aliens and goods—by their own leaders. No new chief can change that. The [Department of Homeland Security] has turned its resources from deterring and detaining inadmissible aliens towards processing them and moving them inland. Agents who signed on to defend their country are instead assisting illegal aliens to enter. They know this is contrary to the laws they were taught to enforce. Morale must be in the tank.
Given the high influx of migrants at America’s borders, Owens was likely the most apparent choice to take over for Ortiz.
Owens most recently served as chief of the Del Rio sector, consistently one of the busiest sections of the southern border.
He joined the Border Patrol in 1996 and has received numerous promotions throughout his tenure. In 2007, he became assistant chief at Border Patrol headquarters in Washington. After multiple transfers and promotions, he was named chief patrol agent of the Houlton sector, which covers the entire state of Maine.
Owen’s impressive resume indicates he is equipped to do the job, the Center for Immigration Studies’ Arthur said, because “the agents want to have one of their own in charge.”
Owens takes the helm of the Border Patrol less than two months after the public health measure known at Title 42 expired. The measure had allowed the Border Patrol under the Trump administration to quickly expel some illegal aliens from the southern border during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Title 42 expired May 11, the Biden administration’s Department of Homeland Security implemented new policies that Mayorkas said would allow illegal aliens to enter America through “lawful pathways.”
Mayorkas’ reference to “lawful pathways” includes use of a mobile app called CBP One, which allows illegal aliens to schedule an appointment at a port of entry to seek asylum.
Since the expiration of Title 42, the Biden administration says, illegal entries between ports of entry along the southwest border have dropped 70%.
But Morgan said the administration’s reports of “low” border encounters are “all smoke and mirrors.”
He said illegal aliens simply go to ports of entry and continue to be released into the United States. And CPB’s recent encounter numbers don’t show a dramatic decline in the number of illegal aliens entering the country.
CPB publishes the number of migrant encounters for each month on its website. Encounters by “Border Patrol” refer to encounters between ports of entry; encounters by the “Office of Field Operations” refer to those at ports of entry.
The official number of border encounters for May shows a slight decline compared to April in the number of migrants entering between ports of entry, but an increase in those arriving at ports of entry.
Under the Biden administration’s new policies, Heritage’s Morgan said, families and unaccompanied children are not being turned away at the border.
Looking ahead, Arthur said he anticipates the situation at the southern border will become “much worse in the next couple of months.”
“I think that the population of migrants, in response to the administration’s latest policies, is going to shift,” Arthur told The Daily Signal. “We’re going to start to see a lot more family units entering the United States illegally. So, you know, that’s going to be very difficult; dealing with kids is always the biggest challenge for Border Patrol.”
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