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Acting Head Of Customs And Border Protection Defends Agency's Decisions


A significant Trump administration change for asylum-seekers may not be as big as advertised. The U.S. made what seemed like a dramatic move days ago. It was said to apply to people fleeing Central America or other troubled places. The new rule said that before coming to the U.S. border, asylum-seekers need to seek shelter somewhere else first or they wouldn't be considered. Now, the new acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection says that policy is starting out in a far more limited way than it seemed. This is significant news, and it comes from NPR's John Burnett, who spoke with Mark Morgan yesterday.

Hey there, John.


INSKEEP: OK. So what was the rule and what it seemed to be, and what is it, really?

BURNETT: Right. Well, the new asylum rule - it's a big deal. It was announced with great fanfare earlier this week as a major change in asylum law. It would empower U.S. officials, effectively, to deny most asylum-seekers if they don't first apply for protection in a country they passed through on their way to America, which is highly unlikely. And it sounded like it was going to be an earthquake in asylum law. All the pro-immigrant groups denounced it, tons of stories in the media. But Mark Morgan told me yesterday it's actually just a small pilot project at the moment - very limited.

MARK MORGAN: Although the new federal regulation allows us to apply that all 2,000 miles along the southwest border, we're not going to do that. So we're really piloting it in just one location.

BURNETT: He said, though it applies to most asylum-seekers, they're road testing it at just two stations in the busy Rio Grande Valley. If it works out, they'd like to expand it along the entire southern border. But immigration lawyers have already filed two federal lawsuits to block it. Morgan told me they expect a federal judge to issue an injunction any day now to block the new regs, which would lead them dead in the water for the time being.

INSKEEP: This is a dramatic change, John. And it seems to fit the pattern of some other Trump administration announcements, like the travel ban, where it starts out as something really big, and it gets narrowed and narrowed. And in this case, you've actually got an official saying, realistically, this isn't going to happen at all for now. The judge is going to block whatever we do, so we're not going to do very much.

BURNETT: That's the takeaway.

INSKEEP: OK. And it's not the only thing that Mark Morgan is facing. We should mention he's new in the job - just been there a couple of weeks - which means he arrived right around the time that news was emerging of a private Facebook group for current and former agents in the Border Patrol in which some of the posts mocked migrants, as well as Democrats in Congress.

BURNETT: Right. So we know CBP internal affairs is investigating at least 62 current Border Patrol agents who were members. This Facebook page, as we recall, poked fun at dead migrants and made sexist jokes about Latina congresswomen critical of the agency. And the commissioner seemed to be waiting for that question.

MORGAN: Some of the images that were out there - absolutely horrendous, wrong and not consistent with the way that CBP or, specifically, Border Patrol conducts themselves, period. I mean, we're actually looking at potential criminal charges. That has been talked about just to show how serious we're talking that.

BURNETT: I asked him to clarify what kind of criminal charges, and he said he couldn't talk about an ongoing investigation. He did say several agents have already been suspended from the force, and there may be more.

INSKEEP: What, if anything, did Mark Morgan tell you, John, about the massively overcrowded conditions for migrants who are being detained by Customs and Border Protection? These are conditions that can no longer be denied. We've seen the photos.

BURNETT: Right. And as you recall, a government watchdog released two recent reports calling out CBP for these dreadful conditions in the holding cells - you know, so crowded for adults, some had to stand on toilets to breathe. Kids went without access to showers or hot food, sometimes for weeks. And Morgan acknowledged the agency couldn't handle the crush of migrants, but he claimed they've always gotten the basic necessities.

MORGAN: They're getting medical care. They're getting hot food. They're getting showers. They're getting clothes - the whole nine yards.

INSKEEP: The inspector general reports seem to suggest a little less than nine yards.

BURNETT: Well, I played him part of an interview I had with a woman named Marianela Watson. She runs a migrant shelter in Brownsville, and she said they tell her all the time about conditions in the Border Patrol detention cells. Lights are on 24 hours. They're awakened every two hours all night long. They sleep on cold concrete.

MARIANELA WATSON: This is their way of harassing them and then telling them, if you don't like the way we're treating you, then here. Sign these papers that you'll - on your own, go back to your home country.

BURNETT: And if you look at the totality of the president's policies - detaining migrants in these deplorable cells, separating families at the border, making asylum-seekers wait in Mexico - immigrant advocates have come to a conclusion the Trump administration wants to punish migrants and make them miserable so they stop coming in the first place. Mark Morgan told me that's absolutely false. He said he's never had a conversation along those lines, and they're trying to do everything they can to enforce the rule of law, maintain integrity in the system.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Burnett, thanks for that interview.

BURNETT: You bet, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.