EDITOR’S NOTE: Border Report’s Sandra Sanchez interviewed U.S. Border Patrol Big Bend Sector Chief Patrol Agent Matthew Hudak via phone on Oct. 10, 2019. Hudak’s office contacted Border Report after the White House released immigration apprehension numbers earlier this week. Border Report had met with several of Hudak’s staff while on our Border Report Tour through the Southwest when we stopped at Big Bend National Park on Sept. 27 and interviewed Roberto Dominguez, patrol agent in charge of the Alpine station. That same day Julian Resendiz interviewed members of Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations in Alpine, Texas.
Hudak: I appreciate you reaching out to us and I’ve had the opportunity to see a couple of the reports you’ve done from out here, the story with Mr. Dominguez covering the Alpine station, and with the Air and Marine team as well and so I appreciate that. Great Information. I definitely appreciate you getting that information and that perspective out to folks.
Q: So tell me what your apprehension numbers were like for fiscal 2019 in the Big Bend Sector.
A: We ended the fiscal year with just over 9,600 arrests, which for us was significant, that’s a 20 percent increase for us over fiscal year 2018. So in one year, we went up 20 percent. A little story behind that: I took command here at the end of March and at that point we were running about 15 percent below last year’s numbers, and so we were kind of an anomaly on a much lower trend but starting March to April and into May our numbers went up so dramatically that they actually turned us from being 15 percent below to 20 percent over by the end of the year.
Q: What do you attribute that to?
A: Unfortunately that followed the trend that you saw in other countries and just the volume of people that perceive the incentives to be able to come to this country.
Some of the national numbers 40-60 percent of our manpower was at times dedicated to dealing w the humanitarian side of that. In this sector, that certainly was the case when we were dealing with larger groups of family units. And because I have a fairly large area and a relatively small amount of staffing that ratio at times was probably at times much higher.
Q: What is your staffing?
A: We have roughly 500 agents to cover a little over 500 miles of border. So that’s very different than what you’ll see in any of the other sectors even with the much smaller distance of border to cover, significantly more agents. So for us when Presidio, with a 91 percent increase in their arrests so when that station makes an arrest of a group with 30 or 40 people with family units and children, that pretty much is going to bring that station to a halt and we’re going to have to collapse in other stations to help them detain, process and care for those children and those families. So that has a ripple effect for us across the entire sector and ultimately the challenge for us, and for the public as well, is we have to deal w those people that we have in custody. But that ends up for us leaving significant areas well under-patrolled if we can get to them at all. So when we do get our feet back under us and able to respond, we’re usually well under the traffic that has entered illegally and we’re chasing it farther into the National Park or farther into some of our areas and the farther we get from the border, our ability to be successful decreases. So we’d much rather be making arrests right at the border or very close to it, not following groups for five or six or seven days through some of the terrain out here that you had a chance to see.
Q: Do you have situations where you follow groups for such prolonged periods of time?
A: Yes, that’s not uncommon out here. Certainly the weather and the terrain are complicating factors and one of the big concerns that I have with this trend with the family units is we were seeing family units entering into remote areas of our area, whether that be into Big Bend Park or some of the areas even farther out in the park where there is no town, there is no infrastructure, there is no roads, so you’ve got a group of 30 people with 15 or 20 of them being children. Our agents can go out there and make that arrest but for us to even get to vehicles out there to transport them may be a four to six or eight-hour process and that’s a dangerous situation.
Q: Are you seeing unaccompanied children coming through your area?
A: We are but fortunately for us the number of unaccompanied children is actually down for us. We actually saw a 24 percent decrease in unaccompanied children, but that was still over 700 children and so that definitely is a concern. Even along our border, we don’t have a large city like Juarez, or even moderately-sized cities like Piedras Negras. Ojinaga — across from Presidio — is still a relatively small town so there is not a lot of that infrastructure or support for unaccompanied children of family units so it’s dangerous on both sides of the border.
Q: Has MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols) been implemented there in your sector and if so where are law enforcement officials driving them to?
A: We are doing MPP here. We have implemented that in our sector. The nearest location that we have the opportunity to do those returns is actually through El Paso. Because like I said, the town here Ojianaga in Chihuahua is a relatively small town that can’t support that so we actually go through the same process El Paso does into Juarez.
Q: Are you flying or driving them?
A: Those are drives and we will hold them at one of our stations here within the sector and when the process can move on we can get them to El Paso and that can be anywhere to an hour and a half or three-hour drive to El Paso.
Q: For the month of September, nationally decreases went down, President Trump’s press statement said there were a number of strategies implemented that decreased apprehensions. What did you see apprehensions do in the Big Bend Sector?
A: Compared to September of last year we were relatively similar, if not a little bit more. We actually had just under 800 — 791 arrests in September — and for us that was consistent with and maybe a little higher than last year’s numbers, but significantly lower than where we were in May with under 2,000 arrests.
Q: The White House statement on Tuesday mentioned Migrant Protection Protocols, metering and agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, as well as the Border Infrastructure System that all help to coalesce the force multipliers which help you on the ground, right?
A: That is correct. When I talk to our communities, stakeholders, one of the things I try to communicate is the complexity of the border security mission and certainly, the immigration part of it is the most complex, that nothing happens in a vacuum. Every action has either a reaction or compounds another action. So when we use things like MPP, certainly the tremendous amount of work that the government of Mexico has done, including here in our area, the partnerships — now the agreements — signed with some of the Central American countries for repatriation, all of those things, not one of them is going to be a single solution but it’s the compounding effect of all those things going together.
We have not seen the increase in Border Infrastructure System here. We do have needs in that regard, but where that is happening that is another effect that is compounding that as well. So when we put all those together they certainly are having an effect and so I think that’s why as some of those things started coming online why we saw this very dramatic turn from those very high numbers in May and June, to then taking a dramatic turn August into September. So those are definitely good things.
All of those things, not one of them is going to be a single solution but it’s the compounding effect of all those things going together. “Border Patrol Big Bend Sector Chief Patrol Agent Matthew Hudak
The metering part that gets a misnomer in terms of what it is but the challenge our partners in blue at the ports have is facilitating legitimate trade and travel and if they were to deal with 500 people at a time making an asylum claim or making that petition. They can’t facilitate trade and travel when they’re dealing with that. So some of that response and the metering you referred to is an effort to be able to deal with that as well but also be able to sustain the legitimate cargo and legitimate passenger vehicles that are coming across those ports of entry. So it’s a complicated situation but I think they’re doing a good job of managing it and being respectful to all of those audiences.
Q: I’m actually south of Donna, Texas, today reporting where they have cleared lands to continue building new border wall. But in your sector that has not been determined, there have not been any announcement as far as new Border Infrastructure System there, correct?
A: Correct and as you would expect there is a prioritized flow of that. Where that infrastructure is going to be put. The reality is, as is typically always the case, our requirements set is much larger than the funding or resources are able to support. And the border wall system is no exception. There is a finite amount of funding that we can dedicate to that. And it’s certainly being prioritized in the areas where there are the biggest concerns. As I mentioned, we do have requirements here for border infrastructure, certainly the 517 miles of border that we have. But, again, the resources have to be prioritized and I think a lot of good work is being done to prioritize it to where it needs to be in the short term.
Q: Sorry. I got distracted for a moment because as I stopped to talk to you I looked up and suddenly realized I was surrounded by a bunch of vehicles. I’m on a main highway but they’re obviously wondering what I’m doing. And that brings home the point that shows what happens in your line of work you have to always be watching out for people. You not only are trying to look for those who are trying to enter the country illegally, but also for those who might also have nefarious intentions on your agents, or the country, correct?
A: Very good Sandra. Our operations we really have to conduct them in a 360-degree manner. To folks who are away from the border they kind of have the visual of agents standing out there watching the fence and waiting for somebody to come over the top of it. At times that may be part of it but there’s a lot more complexity to it. We have areas where we have vehicles that go into areas that really does not make sense and we observe them and they’re actually there attempting to pick up people who are making an illegal entry. So those things happen very quickly, very dynamically and so the agents do need to be on top of it. I’m very proud of our agents in the Big Bend Sector, but also across all of our borders, they do tremendous work every day. Whether it be assaults, or the other extreme: Dealing with children that are exploited and taken advantage of. And for us as parents and good Americans, seeing people victimized that way, that’s tough. And I think that gets lost in some of the discussion, the humanitarian toll that it’s taken on our agents to have to see people often times at their worst and we’re the front line in a lot of cases of dealing with some pretty horrendous medical conditions. You’re encountering people who have a very serious medical condition or contagious situation that has never been treated or addressed and we’re the first ones dealing with that. So it’s tough all around and I appreciate you recognizing that.
To folks who are away from the border they kind of have the visual of agents standing out there watching the fence and waiting for somebody to come over the top of it. At times that may be part of it but there’s a lot more complexity to it. … The humanitarian toll that it’s taken on our agents to have to see people often times at their worst and we’re the front line.”Border Patrol Big Bend Sector Chief Patrol Agent Matthew Hudak
Q: Some of the things that shocked me the most from the Border Report Tour was that your agents actually take pop-up tents to offer shade for the migrants when they are apprehending them and processing them on the spot, because oftentimes the terrain is so out in the open, there is no cover and you actually go to great lengths aside from bringing food, water, snacks, Pampers, to even bringing tents right?
A: Exactly. You got to see and hear about that from Mr. Dominguez. In the areas where I was mentioning that it can take us several hours in a good situation to get folks out of some of these dangerous and tough terrain areas, that’s something that was initiated by the agents who said ‘Can we get something like this so they can respond out there and put up these shelters. To at least get some of the kids, get some of these folks into shade in these areas where there literally is no shade. The brush is a foot or two high. And if it wasn’t for that they’d be sitting there for three, four, or five-plus hours until we could get to them to actually get vehicles nearby to get them out. So that is a great example of the things that our agents are doing. And really there’s no law out there requiring them to do that, that just speaks to the quality and caliber of our agents. It’s a tremendous example.
Q: Is there anything else you want to say that I didn’t ask you about?
A: I know the grand scale and scope of things focuses a lot of the discussion on the immigration side and the number of arrests we make for the immigration violations but the other part is we are still continuing to make arrests to narcotics trafficking across the border. This year this sector we had well over 2 tons of marijuana we seized; 40 pounds of cocaine; 8 pounds of heroin; just under 200 pounds of methamphetamine and $60,000 in currency. While at the same time we were dealing with the humanitarian side of it, our agents are still going out and doing that tremendous work that contributes to the overall national security. It’s unfortunate that dealing with those groups took us away from a lot of that mission but I think it’s important to know that it’s still the mission that we’re doing and frankly the mission that needs to be done. Certainly the resources help us to do that.
This year this sector we had well over 2 tons of marijuana we seized; 40 pounds of cocaine; 8 pounds of heroin; just under 200 pounds of methamphetamine and $60,000 in currency. “Border Patrol Big Bend Sector Chief Patrol Agent Matthew Hudak
The other point is the size of the sector that we have and the challenges in terms of the terrain but one of the things that really helps us in dealing with that is the partnerships that we have with the other federal, state and local agencies. Operation Stonegarden is a great asset to us in this sector. That helps some of these local and county agencies support us by conducting targeted patrols in different areas. That’s a tremendous force multiplier. I know you talked to Air & Marine and that is a significant tool for us out here that really helps us having a better chance of even covering a sliver of the large area that we have. You talked to Mr. Dominguez about the (Big Bend National) park. The National Park Service is a great partner to us. That park is over 1,200 square miles of terrain so the partnership we have with the Park Service is a tremendous example of how we work together to keep that area safe so even though it is a border area, they still have over 500,000 visitors a year and that park actually covers 196 miles of river miles so significant.
And then the partnership with the government of Mexico. On a large scale that has been a tremendous force multiplier to us and tremendous contributor to the change in the immigration trend, but locally they’re great partners in trying to get together to try and keep communities on both sides of the border safe. So that’s some of the things that get lost in the large numbers of arrests but they’re important parts of the story.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.