DEL RIO, Texas — During his first one-on-one interview since this week being named the next chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, Raul Ortiz outlined his leadership vision for a federal law enforcement agency that continues to face challenges and controversy.
The incoming chief does not plan to make drastic changes, he said, but his appointment indicates a critical leadership shakeup at a time when the Biden administration is attempting to reverse course from the prior administration on immigration enforcement policies.
Asked about internal tension between career agents and the incoming administration, Ortiz acknowledged differences in ideas and approaches but stopped short of calling it a problem.
“So I think with any transition, there’s always going to be a bit of dynamics associated with that transition where people are trying to get to know each other and trying to get to know the mission and trying to make any changes or adjustments,” Ortiz said.
The incoming chief spoke to ABC News on the banks of the Rio Grande river in his home town of Del Rio, Texas. Ortiz served as chief of the Del Rio sector in 2019 before his promotion to deputy chief of the agency. A career agent with extensive experience on the border and overseas, Ortiz oversaw missions in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he trained and assisted the Afghan government in border security.
When he takes over in August, he will bring those nearly 30 years of experience to a uniquely challenging environment on the border today. The Biden administration continues to grapple with enforcing immigration law while ensuring vital humanitarian protections are in place.
Ortiz replaces Chief Rodney Scott, who was named to the position during the Trump administration and was recently forced out of his role under the new administration. Scott oversaw the implementation of a controversial public health order known as Title 42 shortly after he assumed the top role in February 2020 and supported Trump’s border wall.
Ortiz confirmed that the Border Patrol is planning for the end of rapid deportations or “expulsions” carried out under the Title 42 order, which has been justified as a necessary response to combat COVID-19. Immigrant advocates have condemned the practice over the limits it places on humanitarian protections. Axios first reported that the protocols would come to an end by August.
The next chief said he believes Title 42 is one of the factors prompting families to make repeat crossing attempts. The expulsions happen so quickly, Ortiz acknowledged, that many simply try to make the dangerous crossing again, sometimes across the expansive Rio Grande river or in the middle of the desert. The high volume of crossings continue to strain Border Patrol resources. With more agents dedicated to processing, fewer are on the front lines.
“Certainly recidivism is something that we’re focused on, but it also isn’t the only thing we’re focused on,” Ortiz told ABC News. “We’re also cognizant of the fact that there’s a population out there that we haven’t been able to apprehend and I want to make sure that we have enough Border Patrol agents out there who control those areas and shrink that number as much as we possibly can.”
But he also emphasized the consequences associated with repealing the health order. More than 12,000 agents and employees have been infected or exposed to COVID-19, more than half of the 22,000-person work force.
“Well certainly there’s a risk that occurs with the suspension of Title 42,” Ortiz said. “We have to ensure not only their safety but our safety as well as these communities that we represent and that we live in.”
Pressed on the ways Title 42 limits opportunities for migrants to make humanitarian claims, Ortiz acknowledged as much, but also emphasized the avenues that are available for migrants fleeing dangerous circumstances.
“Yeah I do recognize that,” he said. “But I also recognize that in this environment there are a lot more agencies and organizations that are having conversations with the migrant populations we come in contact with. So there are certainly plenty of opportunities for a migrant to make a legitimate claim for asylum.”
Another change for the Border Patrol under the new administration is the shift away from deploying security infrastructure, including anything that resembles a wall, and instead, a renewed focus on increasing the speed and efficiency of migrant processing.
“We got to get better at processing people,” Ortiz said. “We gotta get faster at processing people. We got to get faster at transferring those individuals over to the other agencies.”
Border wall projects in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas and in southern California will be completed, Ortiz said. Crews will also work to repair a flood control system at the Texas site and work to fix some land erosion that resulted at the California site.
“I can guarantee you that we’re going to continue to advocate for access roads for agents, the technology, we need to have sensors underneath the ground because you know, the cartels will build tunnels.”
Ortiz is on board with the Biden administration’s plan to stop the migration crisis before it gets to the border. He said he hopes to frame the issue not just as a Border Patrol problem but as a “whole of government” challenge.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and that can’t just rest on the shoulders of the Department of Homeland Security. There’s other agencies that have a responsibility here,” he said.
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