Families crossing the Arizona-Mexico border and asking for asylum are “overwhelming” the immigration system, the new chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector said.
Roy Villareal now oversees 3,900 agents and support workers in the Tucson Sector, which covers about 260 miles of the international border and is one of the busiest in the country. He sat down with reporters Thursday afternoon to introduce himself and field a few questions.
The Border Patrol regularly issues news releases about families traveling together in groups of 50 or more people and crossing the border in remote areas of Southern Arizona. They often turn themselves over to agents soon after crossing the border near Lukeville and ask for asylum.
From October to February, agents in the Tucson Sector apprehended nearly 5,000 people traveling in families, up from about 1,500 during the same period last fiscal year, according to Border Patrol data.
“Our facilities weren’t designed to house families, we weren’t prepared for the influx of people that need medical care,” Villareal said.
“On a daily basis, I’m sending anywhere from 30 to 50 agents with the migrants for medical care,” which detracts from his ability to put agents on the border, he said.
Smugglers are taking large groups to the border south of Ajo, which will create risks for children in hot summer weather, he said. It also forces him to shift agents to pick them up, rather than patrol the border.
Illegal migration creates “clutter, chaos, and noise” that distracts from efforts to stop drug smuggling and the “terrorist threat,” as well as fraud, car theft and other crimes.
Villareal replaces Rodolfo Karisch, who became the chief patrol agent in August 2017. Karisch was reassigned to Texas, one of at least three Border Patrol chiefs of the Tucson Sector who were reassigned to Texas in recent years.
Villareal said he started his career in Tucson in 1988, at age 18. Before being named head of the Tucson Sector, Villareal was the deputy chief patrol agent of the San Diego and El Centro sectors. He also was the assistant chief patrol agent and acting deputy chief patrol agent for the Yuma Sector.
As opposed to areas in California and Yuma, access to the border for agents in the Tucson Sector is “very difficult,” he said, noting the various state and federal jurisdictions and the Tohono O’odham Nation.
“If we can’t get to the border, we can’t stop that threat,” he said.
The Trump administration’s plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is a constant source of controversy in the national conversation about border security. The 372 miles of Arizona’s border with Mexico, including the Yuma sector, has about 120 miles of pedestrian fencing and 180 miles of vehicle barriers.
“The ongoing debate right now has been so polarized that we’re failing to recognize that what the border security experts are asking for is a border enforcement system. Not solely border fencing or border wall,” Villareal said.
“We have a proven equation that works,” he said.
He advocates for a combination of fencing, roads, cameras, ground sensors and personnel. He plans to learn where in Arizona more fencing is most needed and where technology would be more effective, he said.
“It’s easy to say ‘I’d like 261 miles of fencing,’” he said. “It’s not realistic. It’s not what we need.”