Border Patrol officials say threat posed by ‘gotaways’ at southern border ‘keeps us up at night’

FIRST ON FOX: Top Border Patrol sector chiefs expressed concern about the number of illegal immigrants evading detection at the southern border, saying the potential threat coming across the border “keeps us up at night” during interviews with the House Homeland Security Committee throughout the year.

Fox News Digital obtained excerpts from transcripts of interviews with the committee taken during the year as part of its work on the ongoing migrant crisis, which has set multiple records this year. 

Then-Chief Patrol Agent Jason Owens, now head of the Border Patrol, told lawmakers that a major concern for the agency is the impact the humanitarian crisis has on the border security mission.

SOUTHERN BORDER HIT BY RECORD NUMBER OF MIGRANT ENCOUNTERS IN A SINGLE DAY AS THOUSANDS FLOOD INTO TEXAS

“And our true adversary, the smugglers, while we’re tied up with this humanitarian effort, what are they doing around the bend that we can’t be there to respond to?” he told the committee in May. “Is that where they’re crossing dangerous narcotics? Is that where they’re crossing convicted felons? That is what keeps us up at night.”

“Gotaways” are illegal immigrants who evade Border Patrol detection but are sometimes caught by other forms of surveillance. Fox reported this month that officials told lawmakers that there were around 670,000 known gotaways in FY23. 

There have been increased concerns about gotaways given the ongoing migrant crisis, where agents are being diverted to processing duties rather than out in the field. In some areas, agents have been outnumbered 200:1 by migrants. FBI Director Christopher Wray said in November that gotaways are a source of “great concern” for the FBI.

Tucson Sector Chief Patrol Agent John Modlin, in July, said that when agents are aware of large groups of migrants, “then the primary goal becomes the humanitarian mission of, of course, apprehending them, but also making sure that they’re not out there in the heat. We try to get them out as soon as possible. So then the border security mission suffers at that point.”

Owens said that those who are seeking to evade Border Patrol, rather than turning themselves in for processing as many do every single day, are more likely to have something to hide.

“If a person is willing to put themselves into harm’s way crossing through very remote, very dangerous conditions to evade capture, you have to ask yourself why. What makes them willing to take that risk? That’s of concern to me,” he said. “What’s also of concern to me is I don’t know who that individual is. I don’t know where they came from. I don’t know what their intention is. I don’t know what they brought with them. That unknown represents a risk, a threat. It’s of great concern to anybody that wears this uniform.”

Then-El Paso Chief Patrol Agent Gloria Chavez was asked in September what types of crimes and allegations are among those seeking to evade detection.

“So there’s a variety that are encountered. Many times it’s gang members. Other times, there are criminal records of sex offenders, homicide, burglaries, etc.,” she said, according to the excerpts.

However, El Centro Sector Chief Patrol Agent Gregory Bovino said his concerns were broader than just the gotaways.

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“Any gotaway or any illegal alien for that matter presents a threat to national security or a threat to the taxpayer of the United States,” he said.

House Homeland Security Chairman Mark Green said in a statement that officials have warned that the true number of gotaways could be higher due to those who are evading detection as well as agents.

“We know nothing about the people entering our country uncaught, and we don’t know their intentions or possible malign ambitions. We do know that many gotaways pay the cartels extra to avoid apprehension, which should make us all wonder — why?” he said. “Why give up the prospect of likely release into the interior of the country after turning yourself in to the Border Patrol, being released to a local NGO, and given a paid-for bus or plane ticket to the destination of your choice — unless you have something to hide?”

Sector chiefs also talked about how they have been forced to pull resources from CBP checkpoints, including shutting them down, to focus on the physical land border itself.

San Diego Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke said in May that in 2021 and 2022, his San Diego Sector pulled resources “off of the maritime side and then the checkpoint side and focused on the actual physical land border.” Other officials said the migratory surges made it “more challenging to keep checkpoints, through which illegal entrants can be arrested, open.”

Republicans have blamed the policies of the Biden administration for the migrant crisis, including the roll-back of Trump-era policies. DHS has said it is dealing with a hemisphere-wide crisis and is expanding legal pathways for entry while increasing consequences for illegal entry and targeting smugglers. It says it needs more funding and immigration reform from Congress to fix a “broken” system. A $14 billion funding request is being debated in Washington as lawmakers struggle to find agreement on the supplemental spending bill. 

A DHS official told Fox that there have been 400,000 removals between May and the end of November — nearly the number of removals in all of FY19. The official also noted that the supplemental funding request includes funding for 1,300 additional agents in addition to the 20,000+ funded in the FY24 budget, and 300 Border Patrol Processing Coordinators among other staff.

Democrats on the committee have highlighted other parts of the interviews, including one in which Chavez stressed the importance of Border Patrol processing coordinators.

“They are an added value to the workforce, especially in the central processing centers. Their input and their contribution to the processing has been exemplary,” Chavez said, adding that 52-64% of personnel are now able to handle enforcement in the field.

She also said that the surge in troops to the border by the Pentagon around the ending of Title 42 “releases our agents from those responsibilities so that they can go and do patrol and interdiction duties on the front line.”

Owens, meanwhile, was asked if processing coordinators had helped get Border Patrol agents back in the field.

“Absolutely. Anything and everything is going to help,” he said.

Officials have also said that detection capability has increased, which allows more gotaways to be detected: “Because we have gotten more detection capability, because we have…more on the way, we’ve got the additional processing coordinators, we are in a better situation than we were in years past,” he said.

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