“There continues to be a big push and a big need for them to continue the actions that they’ve taken and to do more,” Wolf said during a news conference at El Paso’s main Border Patrol station. “We always are asking them to do more. We’re always asking our agency to do more.”
Wolf said the Migrant Protection Protocols — also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program — has been successful in keeping tens of thousands of migrants out of the United States while they await immigration court proceedings, alleviating overcrowding of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities.
“Because of our progress in solving the humanitarian crisis, CBP and ICE are able to reduce the number of agents performing these humanitarian missions and duties and return these professionals to the field to secure our border against dangerous transnational criminal organizations and the like,” Wolf said.
Critics in Congress and at the border have said MPP has led to assaults, kidnappings and extortion of migrants who are forced to wait in dangerous Mexican border cities. U.S. courts have allowed the program to continue while opponents challenge it in court.
Wolf said the U.S. government is getting closer to implementing an agreement with Guatemala that will allow migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and other countries to be sent to Guatemala to seek asylum there. Wolf said flights could begin soon, as the government is “finalizing the implementation plan with Guatemala,” but he declined to say where specifically migrants would be sent in the Central American nation.
Officials have said that asylum seekers could be taken to a remote airport in the lowland jungles of Guatemala as part of the Central American nation’s new migration accord with the Trump administration. Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart, who was in Washington on Friday to finalize the asylum agreement, expects migrants to be resettled in the Petén department, well north of the country’s capital.
The U.S. has also reached similar “safe third country” agreements with El Salvador and Honduras that would allow the United States to refuse entry to migrants and have them sent to those countries to seek asylum instead.
The three countries of Central America’s impoverished Northern Triangle have extremely small asylum processing offices, but Wolf said the U.S. is working to expand their ability to process and care for asylum seekers. He didn’t provide specifics.
Wolf became acting Homeland Security secretary on Nov. 13, succeeding Kevin McAleenan, who had been acting secretary since April. DHS, the third-largest Cabinet agency, has not had a Senate-confirmed secretary since Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in April.
After his stop in El Paso, where he met with local CBP leadership and viewed construction of a section of border barrier, Wolf was headed to the Rio Grande Valley on the other side of Texas.
Moore is a freelance journalist based in El Paso.