‘State of the border’: New RGV chief patrol agent holds agency’s inaugural address

Brooks County ranch owner Mike Vickers poses a question to U.S. Border Patrol's new RGV Sector chief patrol agent, Rodolfo Karisch, during the state of the border event on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

MISSION — U.S. Border Patrol’s new chief patrol agent for the Rio Grande Valley sector used the agency’s first state of the border address to introduce himself and highlight opportunities to secure the border in the region.

In only his third week at the helm, chief patrol agent Rodolfo Karisch began his address by commending his agents for their continued service, despite working without pay for nearly a month due to the recent furlough.

He went on to characterize the state of the border as one of opportunity, and underscored trade as one of the strengths in the region.

“Opportunities exist in many aspects throughout the region; it exists within our local municipalities, who recognize growth, ensuring the stability for the hundreds of thousands of residents living in our cities and towns,” he said. “This speaks volumes to the dedication and commitment of our elected officials.

“I want this community to know that I value the importance of trade and travel, and the economic prosperity it brings to this region. But security of our nation and its borders is paramount to the citizens and to the communities that we serve.”

Karisch has more than 35 years of law enforcement experience, including a stint as a police officer in El Paso in the early 1980s before joining Border Patrol more than three decades ago.

Previously, Karisch served in executive leadership positions, including chief patrol agent in the Tucson and Del Rio sectors, as well as acting assistant commissioner of the Office of Professional Responsibility for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“I am eager to learn about the successes and challenges that we face in the RGV, though I’m new to the Valley, I’m no stranger to Texas,” he said. “(I) spent the bulk of my career in places like El Paso and Del Rio, Texas, where I was the chief.”

Karisch is tasked with overseeing tactical and strategic operations of nine stations responsible for securing nearly 300 miles of river, more than 300 coastal miles and more than 30 counties.

He stressed success in securing safety in the region would come from a renewed emphasis on partnerships with local law enforcement, as they work in tandem to stop criminal elements coming through the border.

In addition to his role as chief patrol agent, Karisch is the commander of the Joint Task Force West, South Texas Corridor, coordinating integrated operations for more than 10,000 CBP employees throughout approximately 463,900 square miles, 697 river miles and 1,000 coastal miles from the Del Rio sector to the RGV.

He underscored the need for more wall fencing in the sector, pointing to the large numbers of family units that crossed into the country in fiscal year 2018, and the expectation that the numbers for that group of people would continue to grow.

Karisch, who recently returned from meeting with lawmakers from both houses in Washington to discuss border security, said the solution to comprehensive border security is a combination of elements, including physical infrastructure.

“… Technology is extremely important to us, as it gives my men and women domain awareness and situational awareness, but so too is tactical infrastructure, such as fencing, because it provides impedance and denial,” Karisch said. “The discussion over border security should not be an either-or proposition, but one that incorporates technology, tactical infrastructure, access and mobility, as well as personnel.”

In fiscal year 2018, Border Patrol recorded 396,579 apprehensions between ports of entry on the southwest border, an increase over 2017’s fiscal year apprehensions of 303,916, according to the agency’s website.

Of those 396,579 individuals, 107,212 were family unit apprehensions and 50,036 were unaccompanied children. The president maintains that if lawmakers do not agree to a border security deal before Feb. 15, these numbers may be used to threaten the declaration of a crises on the border.

However, the total number of apprehensions on the southwest border in fiscal year 2018 was less than half the apprehensions seen during the prior fiscal year, when Border Patrol agents apprehended 858,683 individuals, according to the website.

The 396,579 number is still nowhere near the apprehensions reported almost 20 years ago, when Border Patrol officials recorded 1,516,680 apprehensions in fiscal year 1998.

Though far fewer people are being apprehended attempting to enter the country illegally, the number of family units apprehended at the border has increased from fiscal year 2017 when Border Patrol agents apprehended 75,802 family units, to fiscal year 2018, which saw apprehensions topped more than 100,000 with the apprehension of 107,212 family units.

In the RGV sector — one of nine that encompasses the southwest border, including Big Bend, Del Rio, El Centro, El Paso, Laredo, San Diego, Tucson and Yuma — there was a 27 percent increase in family unit apprehensions, from 49,896 apprehensions in fiscal year 2017, to 63,278 apprehensions in fiscal year 2018.

For comparison, the RGV sector recorded a 4-percent decrease in family apprehensions from fiscal year 2016 to 2017, when the figure went from 52,006 apprehensions in 2016, to 49,896 apprehensions in 2017.

Border Patrol is reporting that of the total 102,857 apprehensions at the southwest border during October and November of fiscal year 2019, 48,287 were comprised of family units, according to the agency’s website.

Karisch pointed to the national attention received by migrant caravans that have arrived in the U.S., in California, and recently in Eagle Pass, Texas, stating that in the RGV sector, his agents see the equivalent of a “mini-caravan,” every two weeks.

“Imagine this — every 14 days, here in (the) RGV (sector), we have a mini-caravan (arriving). If you look at the number of people that we’re taking into custody every 14 days — that happens here,” Karisch said. “We’re fortunate in the fact that many of these people are headed to other destinations, they’re not coming to McAllen, they’re not coming to Edinburg, because you can easily see how that can overwhelm the community.”

He said due to the high number of family units,\ and unaccompanied minors arriving to the sector, he’s forced to move agents away from “line operation” positions to the detention centers to help process those people.

He said he also recognizes that there are sensitive and protected lands in the area, and that the agency will have to seek alternative solutions while still providing border security for the region.

The chief patrol agent made it clear on the heels of heavy equipment arriving in the Valley this week, signaling the beginning of border wall construction in the Mission area, that he intends to meet with affected community landowners and stakeholders.

“I will be looking at (holding meetings) very soon as well, because it’s very important. I think the community has a right to know what we’re doing,” Karisch said. “I think it’s important for them to understand (that) sometimes there’s going to be disagreements on things, but as long as we have conversations, that’s the important piece, so it’ll happen very soon, sooner than later.”

He said he will make transparency in his agency a priority.

“At times we may find our fortitude and resolve tested as factors outside of our control creates situations that inhibit our communication. It is through consistent open dialogue that we will foster collaboration, leading to a safer and more secure South Texas,” he said. “My commitment to transparency is unwavering, and I will alleviate misconceptions before they take hold. As a public servant I am accountable to you… I am committed to working with you, continuing transparency as we serve in this wonderful community that is the Rio Grande Valley.”

CRITICS’ REACTION

A few miles away from where the event was held, a small group of border wall protestors convened outside U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s office in Mission.

Accompanying them were two women from Starr County, Nayda Alvarez and Yvette Gaytan, who wanted to deliver a letter to the congressman regarding their concerns about how border wall construction would potentially impact them.

Like some of their counterparts in Hidalgo County, where wall construction appears imminent, each of the women have been served by government officials requesting to access their respective properties to begin surveying the land for the purposes of wall construction near their properties.

Scott Nicol of the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign, who’s often condemned the government’s handling of immigration and border security affairs, was present for both the protest and state of the border address, and was expectedly critical of the latter.

Nicol challenged the claims of transparency.

“They didn’t actually offer any; there’s no information in there at all,” he said standing outside Cuellar’s office. “It would seem like, if they were going to be transparent, a starting point would be to release maps (of border wall locations).”

Nicol attended a stakeholder’s meeting he and others hosted in Roma in October 2017, which sought to educate and update local landowners of where border wall construction would be situated. Representatives of Border Patrol or U.S. Customs and Border Protection were not present.

“… If they really are interested in transparency they should have sit-down meetings with affected stakeholders, affected communities,” Nicol said. “People like Nayda and Yvette should be able to sit down with the people planning these walls and say, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen to my land if you do this.’ We need to discuss it.”

He’s in favor of having an open line of communication for those who will be affected by future wall construction.

“It shouldn’t just be fiat from the Trump administration; it should be an honest dialogue where both parties in that dialogue have the ability to affect that outcome,” he said.

Nicol made note of Cuellar’s attempt to secure language in current border security negotiations that may save some of the more environmentally sensitive areas in the Valley, including the La Lomita Chapel, the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, to name a few. He also stressed the threat of private landowners possibly being impacted by construction.

“We all want to see the butterfly center, La Lomita and Bentsen protected, but saying that they get protected and others don’t, you shouldn’t be able to throw one under the bus and protect the other,” he said. “What should be happening is there should be an honest assessment of right and wrong, what is the right thing to do in this situation. Nobody should be getting walled-off. These walls are useless. The government accountability office said they don’t work; nobody should be getting-walled off. What Cuellar should be doing is ensuring that there is no wall funding going forward in 2019, and then he should be working to stop all the other walls, which he voted for in 2018.”

Gaytan, who lives in Roma and attended the aforementioned stakeholders meeting in the fall of 2017, said she’s hoping there is no funding for wall construction in the fiscal year 2019 budget.

“But if they do (approve wall funding), I haven’t gotten a straight answer as far as where is my home going to be, is it going to take all of my home, or is it going to be right in my backyard, or is it going to be away from me,” she said. “As it stands, I’m less than 300 feet from the river. Their enforcement (zone) is 150 feet, and then still another 25 feet for their easement and enforcement area. So where does that leave my home? They’re talking about lighting, and all kinds of different things, how am I going to be able to live there?”

She said she doesn’t see the need for wall fencing, stating she feels safe in Roma, and specifically along the river.

“… I don’t believe it’s necessary,” Gaytan said. “I let my kids go fishing right there on the river, it’s not dangerous like they’re saying it is. Yes, things do happen just like everywhere else, (but) I was reading a study that says Roma is the second safest city in Texas, and there’s no wall there. So why do we need to put something there?”

Gaytan, who delivered a letter to Cuellar’s staff Friday, said she’s been assured they will be able to meet with Cuellar over their concerns, either in person, or via teleconference soon.

In addition, Gaytan said she’s been concerned about flooding due to her home’s proximity to the river, and how a physical barrier would impact flooding around her.

“If I do get to keep my home with this wall back there, it’s going to cause a dam,” Gaytan said. “Right now my house sits on a bluff. In the past, when it’s flooded, the water gets inches over that bluff. So we’ve been okay, but if you put a wall it’s going to create a dam. All those creeks that empty into the river — where are they going to go? What’s going to happen to those creeks when they break the banks? What’s going to happen to that water? It’s going to hit my home, and it’s going to hit a lot of other people’s homes, who in the past haven’t flooded, but will flood.”