U.S. Border Patrol chief calls southern border a "national security threat"

Washington — In an exclusive interview with CBS News, U.S. Border Patrol chief Jason Owens called the situation at the southern border a “national security threat,” expressing concern about tens of thousands of migrants who have evaded apprehension and entered the country surreptitiously over the past five months. 

Owens said Border Patrol is “closing in” on recording one million apprehensions of migrants in between ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border in the 2024 fiscal year, which started in October. For the third consecutive year, his agency is on track to record two million apprehensions by the time the fiscal year ends at the end of September, Owens added.

“That number is a large number, but what’s keeping me up at night is the 140,000 known got-aways,” Owens said in his first exclusive interview as Border Patrol chief, referring to migrants who are detected by cameras and sensors crossing into the U.S. illegally, but not apprehended.

“Why are they risking their lives and crossing in areas where we can’t get to?” Owens asked. “Why are they hiding? What do they have to hide? What are they bringing in? What is their intent? Where are they coming from? We simply don’t know the answers to those questions. Those things for us are what represent the threat to our communities.”

The situation, Owens added, amounts to “a national security threat.”

“Border security is a big piece of national security,” he said. “And if we don’t know who is coming into our country, and we don’t know what their intent is, that is a threat and they’re exploiting a vulnerability that’s on our border right now.”

Still, Owens agreed that the vast majority of migrants coming to the U.S. border are “good people.”

“I think the migrants that we encounter, that are turning themselves in, yes, I think they absolutely are, by and large, good people,” Owens said. “I wish they would choose the right way to come into our country and not start off on the wrong foot by breaking our laws.”

While a “very small amount” of those apprehended at the southern border are serious criminals, such as convicted gang members or sexual offenders, Owens said most migrants are surrendering themselves to Border Patrol agents to escape poverty or violence in their home countries.

“They’re coming across because they’re either fleeing terrible conditions, or they’re economic migrants looking for a better way of life,” he said.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics show a tiny fraction of migrants processed by Border Patrol have criminal records in the U.S. — or other countries that share information with American officials — and an even smaller percentage have been convicted of serious crimes. Available data and studies also suggest that migrants in the U.S. illegally do not commit crimes at a higher rate than native born Americans.

Still, top law enforcement officials, including FBI director Christopher Wray, have voiced concerns about criminal actors, including potential terrorists, exploiting the unprecedented levels of migration along the U.S. southern border over the past three years. 

In both fiscal years 2022 and 2023, Border Patrol reported over two million apprehensions of migrants who crossed the southern border illegally, both all-time highs. 

Owens said the extraordinary flow of people into the U.S. is mainly driven by cartels.

Asked if the cartels were setting “the rules of engagement” at the southern border, Owens said, “yes, they absolutely are.”

A career official who has spent more than 25 years in Border Patrol, Owens assumed the top position at the agency in June 2023 following the retirement of Raul Ortiz. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called Owens a “talented, selfless, and inspiring leader” when his promotion was announced.

In his interview with CBS News at CBP headquarters in Washington, Owens also called for tougher immigration policies to reduce the number of migrants arriving to the southern border. 

“I’m talking about jail time. I’m talking about being removed from the country and I’m talking about being banned from being able to come back because you chose to come in the illegal way instead of the established lawful pathways that we set for you,” he said.

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