New Border Patrol chief: Fence would help, but it’s not the only answer

Border Patrol Chief Mark Morgan testified to a Senate committee that he is already taking steps to improve operations at the agency, which he has been heading for just six months now. (Photo by Jessica Suerth/Cronkite News)

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, left, called it “outrageous” that Border Patrol takes up to 18 months to hire veterans, who already have many of the skills needed by the agency at a time of high turnover. (Photo by Jessica Suerth/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The U.S.-Mexico border could use more fencing, but other measures are needed as well to “detect and respond to threats in our nation’s border regions,” the new chief of the Border Patrol testified Wednesday.

Chief Mark Morgan told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that after six months in the job, he recognizes that increasing border security is just one of the wide variety of issues where work still needs to be done.

“Do we need more fencing? Yes. Does it work? Yes,” Morgan said. “Do we need it everywhere? No. Is it the sole answer? No.”

Morgan, who was joined by Deputy Chief Carla Provost, said border security was one of five major efforts the agency is targeting, including a better workforce, use of a threat-based approach to detect illegal activity, stronger international partnerships and enhanced performance metrics.

One of the biggest problems with border security is the increase in unaccompanied children crossing the Southern border, Morgan said. He said the agency has stopped 10,549 unaccompanied children so far in fiscal 2017, up from 7,653 during the same period in fiscal 2016.

More than 52,000 unaccompanied children were caught nationwide in fiscal 2016, with 330 being released to sponsors in Arizona.

“The border patrol is dedicating a tremendous amount of resources, taking those folks in, processing them,” Morgan said. “A lot of resources are dedicated to being national childcare providers at this point.”

Provost said another problem is that unaccompanied children are sometimes used to smuggle drugs, what she called “a tactic that we pay attention to.”

Another tactic the agency is focused on is greater use of tactical infrastructure – including fences, access roads and lighting – so that agents can be more effectively deployed while still securing the border.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said the agency could increase its workforce by speeding up the process for hiring veterans. He called the current 18-month process “outrageous.”

“Right now, it takes 18 months to receive the clearance so you can be employed by Border Patrol,” said McCain, a member of the committee. “Why is it that a veteran cannot immediately be hired if they have already been through all this screening?”

Morgan said the agency has significantly improved its hiring practices of veterans, but is “actively pursuing” other methods to speed things up, including rolling over physical and mental health tests if they are taken within a specific period of time.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, told Morgan that he feel free to reach out a hand to the committee if his agency needs extra resources.

“Part of what we’re asking you to do is tell us what you need more of or less of,” said Carper, the ranking minority member on the committee. “I would just hope that at the end of the day, that actually includes the other side of the equation.”