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At Border Security Expo In Texas, Emphasis Isn't On Steel And Concrete Barriers


President Trump dedicated about a thousand words in his State of the Union speech last night to immigration. He talked about crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. He said he would close the, quote, "loopholes" that allow them to enter the country. And he talked about building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. We're going to talk now with NPR's John Burnett. He's at the Border Security Expo in San Antonio with many immigration officials, border agents and vendors Hey there, John.


Hi, Kelly.

MCEVERS: I understand you talked today with Tom Homan. He's the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. What did he have to say?

BURNETT: Well, Tom Homan is mad as hell these days about a lot of things. He wants so-called sanctuary cities to stop what he sees as grandstanding and open their jails to his ICE agents so they can pick up all the undocumented immigrants there. He's tired of ICE agents being, as he says, vilified by Democratic politicians and the media. And, like the president, he says he wants to close what he calls those loopholes that allow asylum-seekers to stay in this country when he says they don't have legitimate fears of returning. Here he is talking about what he says are these bogus asylum claims.


THOMAS HOMAN: I will never say all these families are exploiting the system. Some have legitimate claims I'm sure; many of them do not.

BURNETT: If you think that so many of the asylum-seekers are gaming the system, would you like to see them turned away at the border?

HOMAN: If they're making a frivolous claim to asylum, yes.

BURNETT: So Homan wants Congress to authorize more jail beds so he can lock these asylum-seekers up while their cases process. Then, of course, many immigration attorneys say these immigrants have a justified fear of returning to Central America, and it's cruel to lock them up when they're fleeing out of fear.

MCEVERS: As we mentioned, President Trump, you know, talked about building a border wall again. He wants $25 billion for a security trust fund at the border, part of which will be used on the wall. Has there been much talk about that down there?

BURNETT: You know, all the continuing attention on the wall makes this crowd uneasy. This is the Border Security Expo, and it's all about high tech, a blended approach to border security, using ground sensors and remote cameras and tethered spy blimps and all kinds of gadgets. And I'd say the people at this convention believe there's too much emphasis on steel and concrete barriers. Here's David Aguilar. He was deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection under Obama.

DAVID AGUILAR: Yes, there is additional wall that may be needed out there but not anywhere to the degree that's being debated today. Sometimes we hear the 2,000-mile wall. Well, no, that's ludicrous. We don't need anything like that.

MCEVERS: So if that's true, then what would a border wall be? Like, how long would it be, and what would it look like?

BURNETT: Well, OK, so the president's talking about $25 billion for border security, but down here, they're really only counting on $1.6 billion for 74 miles of border barriers. That's the figure that was in the Homeland Security's 2018 budget request. One border official said - he told me I'm optimistic. It's coming. We're getting ready to build this thing. And several officials said one of the big sticking points is still acquiring that border land. Most of the wall would go across private land, and taking it is long, complicated and litigious. So CBP wants to get started.

MCEVERS: We're hearing about fewer people actually crossing the border illegally these days. Who is still doing that?

BURNETT: Well, of course, apprehensions across the border have dropped 35 percent in the last year. But it's interesting. The two groups of immigrants that are on the rise - unaccompanied youngsters and women and children, most of them coming from Central America, saying they're asking for asylum to get away from these murderous gangs that have taken over their neighborhoods. This last piece of tape is Carry Huffman. He's chief of strategic planning for Customs and Border Protection who says they keep coming because of the so-called catch and release.


BENJAMIN HUFFMAN: They're still coming. They got here. They were arrested, detained for a while, ultimately released. And so there really wasn't a consequence applied to them for unlawfully entering the country. And I think that word is getting back.

BURNETT: Border Patrol is also seeing an uptick in single adults crossing the border illegally, meaning the Trump effect may be wearing off.

MCEVERS: NPR's John Burnett, thank you.

BURNETT: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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