Supervisor Desmond, Republican candidates call for border shutdown to new immigrants

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County Supervisor Jim Desmond is calling for the partial shutdown of the U.S.-Mexico border after an apparently leaked U.S. Customs and Border Protection memo last week warned officers that they may encounter foreign fighters of the Israel-Hamas conflict at the southern border.

CBP officials in San Diego would not confirm the veracity of the memo but said this week it has “no indication of Hamas-directed foreign fighters seeking” to enter the U.S.

At a press conference held Thursday outside the County Operations Center in Kearny Mesa, Desmond called specifically for the federal government to shutter the southern border to new immigrants.

He said immigrants with legal documentation and commerce should still be allowed to enter the U.S. while the federal government creates a better process to vet people seeking asylum. He was joined by District 4 supervisor candidate Amy Reichert, 51st Congressional District candidate and El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, and 49th Congressional District candidate Margarita Wilkinson — all of whom are Republicans.

“Our border system is broken,” Desmond said. “Given mounting national security concerns, the current unsustainable border policies are threatening our community’s and nation’s safety. We must immediately shut down the border to new immigrants, secure it and restore order.”

What appeared to be a CBP memo leaked last week from the San Diego field office warned of possible encounters with foreign fighters linked to Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad at the border as a result of the Israel-Hamas war.

“It is the policy of CBP to neither confirm nor speak to potentially improperly disclosed information or internal documents marked as law enforcement sensitive or for official use only,” the agency said in a statement. “In general, CBP provides frontline personnel a wide range of context for situational awareness in order to ensure they remain vigilant in fulfillment of our homeland and border security missions.”

The agency added that “situational awareness briefs are not threat assessments.”

Desmond also raised concerns about Border Patrol encounters with individuals on the U.S. government’s terror watch list.

In fiscal 2023, Border Patrol encountered 169 individuals on the watchlist at the southern border. A greater number — 484 individuals — were encountered at the northern border.

Both figures, however, marked a record. The previous record at the southern border was 98 in fiscal year 2022.

The watchlist, formally known as the Terrorist Screening Dataset, contains sensitive information about individuals with known or suspected links to terrorist activities. The database includes “affiliates of watchlisted individuals,” according to CBP’s website.

The website notes that encounters with individuals on the watchlist are uncommon. The figures, data show, represent a small fraction of migrants crossings, which — as Desmond noted — are on the rise.

There were 269,735 migrant encounters recorded at the southern border in September — a record for a single month in recent years — bringing the total for fiscal year 2023 to 2.47 million, according to CBP data. In fiscal year 2022, there were 2.37 million migrant encounters.

Locally, more than 23,400 migrants have been dropped off at transit centers across the county in the last six weeks, according to Desmond’s office. The year-end projection for migrant arrivals is expected to exceed 50,000.

The recent increase in the number of migrants — a majority of whom are seeking asylum and continuing on to other parts of the U.S. — have overwhelmed local aid groups who’ve been working to provide temporary resources such as translation assistance, transportation, Wi-Fi, food and restrooms.

The county Board of Supervisors declared a humanitarian crisis for asylum seekers at the border last month and requested more federal support. They also allocated $3 million to nonprofits providing temporary migrant services.

However at Thursday’s press conference, Desmond and other community leaders argued that more needs to be done.

Wilkinson contended that border crossings have become more difficult amid the increase in asylum seekers, who now have to spend more time in line as CBP resources have shifted to care for migrants.

“It is not fair. Law-abiding citizens should have an easy path to succeed in our community, and we must protect our citizens,” Wilkinson said.

Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program, questioned whether there was any indication that the CBP internal memo was based on reality.

“It seems to me that Supervisor Desmond is reaching out for anything to project this idea that migrants possibly could cause harm and just using that for political purposes,” Rios said.

Rios pointed out that those seeking asylum are often fleeing violence and harm in their home countries and noted that any border shutdown — even a partial one — would be unlawful.

“The proposal of closing the border just turns back the concept of asylum and the promise to those that are seeking safety from harm,” he added.

According to the Smart Border Coalition, a nonprofit working on both sides of the border to make crossings more efficient, there are 112 million border crossings annually — 45 million of which are cars and 2 million cargo trucks — comprising of $51 billion of goods each year. Each day, 140,000 people cross the border from Tijuana to San Diego — a majority of whom do so for work, as well as to study or for medical treatment.

SBC Executive Director Joaquín Luken said a total border shutdown is not something the coalition would ever support.

“That’s something that will not help either of either of the communities that we that we live and thrive on,” he said.

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