TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - In a crucial time, Tucson Sector U.S. Border Patrol Chief, Roy Villareal, took charge of the Tucson Sector with 30 years of Border Patrol experience two months ago in March.
Hundreds of Central American migrants are crossing into the country illegally, overwhelming border patrol and local communities.
While lawmakers on capitol hill debate how to best solve the country’s immigration issues, Villareal and his agents must use the resources they have to not only secure the border but also deal with the growing humanitarian crisis.
Villarreal sat down for an exclusive interview one-on-on interview with KOLD News 13’s Angelica Carrillo to discuss everything from the current needs of the border patrol to how agents’ jobs have evolved over time.
Villareal says the Tucson Sector is an operational challenge because of the distance and terrain.
There are currently just under 4,000 agents to patrol about 300 miles of border in central and southeastern Arizona.
“To cover the expanse of border that we have for our responsibility, it certainly is not enough,” said Villareal.
The Ajo/ Lukeville area of Arizona is seeing an increase in illegal crossings and larger groups of migrants more and more frequently.
Villareal says time is a big factor, the border patrol is trying to recruit more agents, but it takes one to two years to get them in the field.
There are currently plans to update and add more infrastructure in certain areas but planning and construction can take anywhere from three to five years.
Villareal was asked if he believes we have an emergency at our border.
“Absolutely, in my 30 years of doing border security, I have yet to witness a phenomenal that is even similar to this,” said Villareal.
The border patrol is also facing pushback from some in the community.
Recently, students at the University of Arizona protested to keep uniformed agents off campus.
Pima County Supervisors have also criticized the Tucson Sector for ‘inadequate’ communication regarding the release of large groups of migrants into the community.
Villareal says he’s working to improve that communication and is planning to meet more with local law enforcement and community partners.
Villareal was asked about the compassion or lack thereof some believe of border patrol agents.
“You look at the cultural history of the border patrol and the reputation that it had 30 years ago, it is not in line with what you see today. As it relates to compassion, I’ve got men and women that it breaks their hearts just like it breaks mine when you see these young children that we’re encountering at the border,” said Villareal.
As temperatures heat up this summer, Villareal says his team has also shifted air resources and search and rescue teams to be ready.
“It takes us anywhere from 8 to 24 hours to extract a group of 400 people from the desert, now that means you’ve got young women and children that are exposed to the heat out there, so I’ve got great a concern about that,” said Villareal.
But because of the rugged terrain, extracting hundreds of migrants from the desert takes a lot of time and resources.
“There are days when as a result of us having to care, feed and do hospital visits that I may have an excess of 50 percent of my workforce away from the field providing border security because they are caring for these family units and what that creates is a vulnerability and a gap that is then exploited by the smugglers,” said Villareal.
When asked if the Tucson Sector could only get one thing: infrastructure, technology or more agents – which would he chose, Villareal said he couldn’t commit to one thing – he said investing in only one of those would set the system up for failure.
“For an effective deterrent as it relates to border security is, we need a mechanism by which the loophole that exists today is closed. In other words, if you come here as a family unit you’re going to be released, if you come here and request asylum you’re going to be released, we need a system that negates that,” said Villareal.
This week, President Trump and other republican lawmakers introduced different pieces of immigration legislation including merit-based migration and changes to asylum laws.
Villareal says he’s not opposed to migration, but says it needs to be done legally and with a process, “we need congress to shut those loopholes down, we need probably an overhaul of our immigration system and our immigration laws so it can adjust and account for this type of flow of migration, but until that happens is going to continue.”