Family separations could double, says Border Patrol chief in Rio Grande Valley

by Michael E. Miller   on June 16, 2018   publication:

As outrage mounts over the Trump administration’s separation of hundreds of migrant children from their parents, the person overseeing that zero-tolerance policy on the busiest stretch of the Southwest border said the number of families affected could double.

Manuel Padilla Jr., Border Patrol chief for the Rio Grande Valley, told The Washington Post on Thursday that his agents had separated 568 parents from children as young as 5 since the zero-tolerance policy was announced on April 6.

But that figure represented only half the number of parents who could have been prosecuted for entering the country illegally, leaving Border Patrol plenty of room to ramp up family separations.

“We are trying to build to 100 percent prosecution of everybody that is eligible,” he said. “We are not there yet, but that is our intent.”

Padilla’s comments came as angry legislators prepared to visit the Rio Grande Valley Sunday and tour the chief’s facilities.

Nationwide, nearly 2,000 minors were taken from their parents from April 19 through May 31, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security.

As reporters pressed the White House for a justification of the controversial policy Thursday, Padilla sat in his office 1,700 miles away, calmly providing the rationale.

Dressed in green fatigues, the 32-year member of the Border Patrol was unapologetic. He said years of lax enforcement had only encouraged more violators.

“This zero-tolerance initiative changes that completely,” he said. “We cannot just have this surge of immigration without any consequences.”

The number of parents and minor children illegally crossing remained steady overall in May but rose 10 percent in the Rio Grande Valley. But Padilla said the policy needs more time to take effect.

Migrant advocates say, however, that the factors pushing many families to the United States, such as gang violence in Central America, are not going away.

“It doesn’t matter how cruel we become,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), a nonprofit group that provides immigrant children with pro bono legal support. Families “are going to take that risk,” she said.

A ‘last stand’ at the border

Padilla is an unlikely champion of family separation. He was born and raised on the border in Nogales, Ariz., but his parents were born on the other side, in Mexico, where he often visited his grandparents when he was a child.

“The border back then was three strands of barbed wire,” he recalled.

Padilla, 52, first encountered the Border Patrol as a teen working on ranches in Nogales and seeing border agents passing on patrol. He joined the Army straight out of high school with an eye on the Border Patrol, which he joined two years later.

In 2012, Padilla was put in charge of the Tucson office. At the time, that sector — which includes his home town — was the busiest on the border. Under his watch, drug cartel activity and illegal immigration along the border in Arizona declined sharply.

But activists accused him of being too aggressive. In early 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint alleging that his agents had performed unconstitutional searches and used excessive force.

Around that time, illegal border crossings shifted east as thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America began crossing the Rio Grande each month.

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