Border Patrol
Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Flickr

It’s Joe Biden’s border crisis now.

Tens of thousands of migrants are surging across Mexico toward the U.S. frontier, most of them desperate Mexicans and Central Americans drawn by internet rumors and traffickers’ false promises that the new president’s immigration reforms will welcome them to settle in the United States.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials reported Thursday that they had expelled, detained, or arrested 78,323 migrants last month, up six percent from December and more than double the number in January 2020. Nearly 6,000 of the migrants intercepted by border officers trying to slip the border last month were unaccompanied children.

“It looks like we’re at the beginning of a bona fide migrant crisis like 2019,” said Todd Bensman, an Austin-based senior national security fellow with the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. “Family units, parents with children, are massing along the northern border of Mexico, then crossing in large groups, anywhere from 20 to 150 at a time, twenty-four hours, seven days a week.”

Bensman calls the migrant surge “the Biden effect” because nearly all the migrants he has interviewed along the routes from Central America and Mexico were ecstatic about the president’s campaign promises to reform the U.S. immigration system. They assumed that his victory in November meant they would soon be welcomed to resettle in the U.S., they told him.

“The escalation is so much faster than 2019,” a federal agent on the border says, speaking on terms of anonymity to discuss the politically sensitive issue. “It started getting busy in the summer. Since the inauguration, the numbers are spinning.”

“People think that now the doors are open, that President Biden is going to immediately regularize all migrants,” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Thursday, warning Central Americans not to risk the perilous trip to the border only to be turned back to gang-plagued encampments. “It is not true,” he said, “that everyone can go now to the United States.” He blamed the surge on “human traffickers, who paint a rosy picture.”

At two consecutive White House briefings this week, Biden press secretary Jen Psaki pleaded for patience.

“We have not had the time, as an administration,” she said, “to put in place a humane, comprehensive process for processing individuals who are coming to the border, now is not the time to come, and the vast majority of people will be turned away. Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately; it will take time to implement.”

Meanwhile, though, refugees fleeing violence and poverty in Mexico and Central America may take another, more welcoming message from Biden’s formal proclamation on Thursday that put an end to ex-President Donald Trump’s 2019 declaration of a national emergency on the southwestern border. “It shall be the policy of my Administration that no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall,” Biden wrote in a formal letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

The Rio Grande Valley in southeast Texas, traditionally the nation’s busiest smuggling corridor, has been hardest hit by the migrant surge. U.S. Border Patrol agents there have been apprehending more than 17,000 illegals a month since October; more than double the pace of late 2019 and early 2020. Last week, Border Patrol agents apprehended 253 illegals, mainly families with children, in the Rio Grande Valley within a single hour. 

To process the throng of refugees in winter weather and pandemic conditions, on Tuesday, the administration opened a 185,000-square-foot tent facility on 40 acres near McAllen, the biggest city in the Rio Grande Valley.

Catch and Release

After processing, most of those people are being sent back to Mexico to wait out their asylum hearings. But some families with young children are being released into the United States, with orders to return for asylum proceedings, a process that could take months or years.

According to federal officials, Border Patrol agents have been told to process and release families with children under 12, in line with Biden’s pledge to end the Trump administration policy of separating families and detaining illegal migrants for months or longer.

“Right now, we’re just dropping them off at the bus station,” says one agent. “No testing, no nothing. We detain them and get their biometrics. If they have a kid under 12, they get an OR [own recognizance] packet, a notice to appear [at an asylum hearing] and a pro bono lawyers list, and then we release them. They are now legally in the U.S. They can go wherever.”

Exactly how many refugees have been released into the U.S. is not clear. Psaki said Wednesday that “there have been incredibly narrow and limited circumstances where individuals…have come into the country awaiting for their hearing, but the vast majority have been… turned away.”

She did not disclose exactly how many people have enjoyed “narrow and limited” exceptions to the general policy of requiring asylum-seekers to wait for their turn abroad. CBP officials have not responded to SpyTalk’s request for these numbers.

Nor is there solid data for “gotaways”—Border Patrol slang for illegals who evaded U.S. authorities. Internal enforcement records reviewed by SpyTalk suggest that thousands of “gotaways” disappear weekly into the U.S. heartland. Some officials say the gotaway numbers are understated because agents on the border are stretched too thin to execute the necessary paperwork.

A few national security officials fear that some of the gotaways may have been spies and terrorists, an idea that gained traction after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. So far, it hasn’t materialized as a significant national security threat, but border enforcement officials say it’s entirely possible that secret agents and terrorists trained in evasion tradecraft are successfully infiltrating the burgeoning migrant waves.

Says one federal agent: “If you’re so busy you’re not able to make cuts”—hunting slang for tracking footprints—“you have no idea what’s getting away.”

FBI and Homeland Security officials pay extra attention to people they call SIAs, or “special interest aliens,” individuals who, “based on an analysis of travel patterns, potentially [pose] a national security risk to the United States or its interests.”

From Tehran to Yuma

CBP does not publish numbers for migrants in the SIA category. According to data obtained by SpyTalk, in the last half of January, federal agents in Texas apprehended two North Koreans, nine Chinese, 70 Venezuelans and more than 300 Cubans. Hundreds more Cubans are reported to be waiting to file asylum claims from encampments in Ciudad Juarez, just south of El Paso. U.S. officials have not said publicly whether any of the Cubans or other espionage or terrorism.

“You just can’t do background checks on these people,” says Arturo Fontes, a retired FBI agent formerly based in Laredo, who investigated numerous migrants suspected of links to Middle Eastern terror groups. “When you interview them, it’s difficult to tell who they really are.”

At this moment, the FBI, intelligence agencies and border control authorities are watching closely for any Iranian operatives. The radical nation’s leaders have vowed revenge against the United States for the January 2020 U.S. drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, leader of the powerful Quds Force, the external arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. On Feb. 1, Border Patrol officers based in Yuma made national headlines when they apprehended 11 Iranians—five women and six men—on a bridge near San Luis, Arizona, a Yuma suburb that straddles the border.

“The 11 Iranians that were caught were probably economic migrants, but they’ll have to be ruled out as anything else,” says Bensman, a former journalist and counterterrorism intelligence specialist for the Texas state police, and author of a forthcoming book, America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration. “They’ll be thoroughly vetted and interviewed at the border.” If any are defectors, presumably they’ll be referred to the intelligence community.

The bust is intriguing because it may be part of a pattern. The U.S. Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector leads the nation in apprehensions of Iranian illegals, with a total of 14 in the current fiscal year, which began last October, and eight in fiscal year 2020. These instances suggest that southern Arizona is a preferred way station for Iranians paying to be smuggled into the U.S.

“There’s a migrant trail from Iran to the southern border that is well established,” Bensman says. Following the route back, Bensman says he found Iranians in Panama and Costa Rica, planning to travel to the U.S. They were using false or real travel documents acquired from corrupt officials in various small nations to make their way to Mexico, he says, where they planned to pay a Mexican smuggling ring to take them the last mile to the U.S.

Fontes, who also investigated the Iranian migrant trail, says he has been told by a reliable source that some Iranians fly into Cancun, a resort with many international flights, fly from there to Mexicali, just south of California, and pay cartel smugglers $30,000 to $50,000 to drive them to the border, then guide them across it.

Mexico’s human trafficking rings are highly organized, disciplined branches of larger cartels that also traffic in drugs and arms and exert rigid control over their plazas, turf.

“The cartels are in control of the border,” says Norman Townsend, another retired FBI agent, also based in Texas and experienced in investigating  efforts by Middle Eastern extremist groups to send operatives into the U.S. “The potential for infiltration by a terrorist is certainly there.”

Coached Class

Malign actors can arrange to be guided via the safest routes, according to agents who work the borders. Meanwhile, the cartel will send poor Central Americans by more exposed, dangerous routes. If they need to be rescued, all the better. Cartel guides exploit humanitarian emergencies to move valuable contraband and people who pay for first-class treatment.

“Family units are being used as diversions to get everyone else across,” says a federal agent on the border.  “They’ll send 100 people, and to the left of that, they’ll send up dope.”

“The fentanyl issue will slam the country in 2021,” says Jaeson Jones, head of Omni Intelligence and a former captain in the Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. “As apprehensions have skyrocketed this year, drug seizures will dip at the border. There’s not enough law enforcement to stop drugs, due to large migration.”

One indirect consequence of the migrant surge may be spiraling overdose deaths. According to DEA intelligence reports, Mexican cartels are jacking up their sales of counterfeit pharmaceutical painkillers laced with fentanyl, an extraordinarily addictive and lethal synthetic opioid manufactured in China and smuggled to Mexican commercial ports in 55-gallon drums of bulk chemicals.

A minuscule dose of fentanyl can kill instantly. As of June 2020, estimated drug overdose deaths spiked to 83,335 over the previous 12 months, the highest level ever reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The U.S. will pay a significant price as overdose deaths rise and local crimes skyrocket throughout the country,” says Jones. “Watch for crime problems to be a major issue during the Biden administration.”

As far as Mexico’s cartels are concerned, it’s all good.  Humans, drugs or guns, it’s all just profit for the crime barons, and business is booming.

“The cartels are making a killing,” says Bensman.

Elaine Shannon

Follow Elaine on Twitter @ElaineShannonDC. Elaine Shannon is a veteran national security reporter and former correspondent for Time and Newsweek. Her latest book, Hunting LeRoux, was published by Michael Mann Books. This piece first appeared on SpyTalk.