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Acting Commissioner Of Customs And Border Protection Announces He Will Resign


The nation's chief border security official is set to resign. John Sanders announced today he'll step down as acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection effective July 5. His agency has been struggling with a record surge of families crossing the southern border, and his role puts him squarely in the middle of the president who wants agency heads to get tougher on immigration and advocates raising alarm about the treatment of children in CBP's care. NPR's John Burnett joins us from Austin, Texas. And, John, let's just start with why? Why is Sanders stepping down at this particular time?

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Yeah. I wish I had a motive for you, Audie. He didn't give a reason why he's leaving. Was he pushed out by President Trump because he wanted somebody more gung-ho to be tougher on immigrants? According to a CBP insider I talked to, Sanders was not that guy. He's a former chief operating officer at CBP. I heard him speak at a conference earlier this year, and he came across as mild-mannered and earnest, not a hard-charging hard-liner. President Trump was asked about the exit of his border security chief earlier today.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No. I know there was going to be a change there. I've made changes, very good changes. We have - we're moving some people around into different locations. The game has changed a lot because of what Mexico is doing. We're able to do things that we wouldn't have been able to do before.

BURNETT: You know - and the other possibility is that John Sanders was just overwhelmed and demoralized by the job. I mean, these are chaotic times at CBP. They're in the headlines every day, not in a good way. They're trying to deal with this historic flow of families and kids coming across the border. And it's not a pretty picture.

CORNISH: Can you update us on the situation of these children who are being held in the CBP facility? I mean, it's gotten so much attention because of the conditions.

BURNETT: Well, as you recall, Audie, some advocate lawyers visited a Border Patrol station in the town of Clint and found 350 kids, from infants to 17-year-olds, packed into holding cells meant for a third that many people. There was no adult supervision. They found older kids taking care of babies. The children complained about being hungry, never showering. Some had the flu, and some said they'd been there for weeks on end.

A CBP official spoke to reporters this morning and pushed back on the lawyer's criticism. He said kids can take showers every three days, and they get snacks between their meals, which are three a day. In terms of numbers, the latest I have is that 249 of these unaccompanied children were transferred from Clint into the care of Health and Human Services. They'll live in youth shelters that are really a major improvement over these harsh Border Patrol cells. But shockingly, CBP said this morning a hundred kids will continue to stay in those holding cells because there's no place else to put them.

CORNISH: OK. Showers every three days, and yet longstanding federal policy is that children should not be kept under harsh conditions in Border Patrol custody for more than 72 hours. So what is the government saying about this?

BURNETT: Well, I spoke with a senior Border Patrol official in Washington today, and he said the frustration level at the agency is high with the record numbers of families and kids crossing 144,000 in May alone. He said the Border Patrol feels like its back is against the wall. He said that Health and Human Services can stop taking kids if their youth shelters are overcrowded. And Immigration Customs Enforcement can refuse to accept adult immigrants if its jails are full. But he said migrants keep crossing the border every day and, quote, "the Border Patrol can't turn off the spigot. We have to process them."

CORNISH: That's NPR's John Burnett. Thanks so much.

TRUMP: You're welcome, Audie. 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.