The surge in immigrant children caught crossing the southern border in Texas that has dominated headlines and risks becoming a political crisis for President Barack Obama and Congress includes a new threat facing Border Patrol agents: reporters.
An assistant chief patrol agent, Eligio "Lee" Pena, warned more than 3,000 Border Patrol agents that journalists looking for information about what Obama described as a humanitarian crisis are likely to ask for information and "may try to disguise themselves." The email, obtained by The Associated Press, said agents should not speak to reporters, on or off duty, without advanced permission and warned that anyone who does could be charged with a crime or disciplined administratively.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske told the AP on Friday he was not aware of Pena's email warnings but said generally, "I am not a fan of telling people not to talk."
Kerlikowske, who has pledged greater transparency since taking over the agency earlier this year, did not formally disavow the directive but added that Border Patrol agents should be focused on their jobs while on duty.
Pena's email was issued as national news organizations descended on the border to cover the immigration surge, especially children crossing the border alone from Central America. The problem has overwhelmed the Border Patrol. More than 47,000 children traveling alone have been found at the border since the start of the budget year in October.
Pena did not describe what sorts of disguises could be employed by reporters.
The issue has fueled the political debate in Washington about U.S. immigration policies, which contributed to this week's stunning election defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Cantor's opponent had said the Republican leader supported "amnesty" for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, and said the surprise election outcome effectively dooms any prospects for legal changes to American immigration laws. Obama has disputed this and urged Congress to act this summer.
Agents in Texas' Rio Grande Valley have made more than 173,000 arrests so far this budget year. Like the child border crossers, most of the immigrants trying to cross illegally are from Central America. The crush of children traveling alone and would-be immigrants traveling as families has prompted the Homeland Security Department to move both children and families to other Border Patrol sectors for processing. The children are later handed off to the Health and Human Services Department, where officials typically try to reunite them with parents or other relatives already in the United States. DHS has released an unspecified number of families with notices to appear at Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices near their final destinations within the United States.
The Obama administration declined to say how many people have been released and how many have reported as ordered. Kerlikowske said Friday he did not know those figures.
The latest instruction to border agents in South Texas is not the first time the Border Patrol has directed officials not to speak with reporters.
Last year, the then-head of the Border Patrols' Southwest border media division told public affairs officials that the agency would "no longer provide interviews, ride alongs, visits, etc., about the border, the state of the border and what have you." In his Feb. 1, 2013, email, Bill Brooks advised that border officials should tell reporters that "you will have to see what you can do to get back to them" and then notify him.
The most recent information lockdown has made the local representatives of the Border Patrol agents' union the agency's de facto spokesmen on conditions inside overcrowded stations and the logistical challenges of processing so many immigrants.