Sep. 27—MANCHESTER — A retired Border Patrol chief at one of the nation's most dangerous southern crossings says immigration reform must start with shutting down the border.
"We have locks on our doors in our homes, even in our bathrooms and bedrooms, yet we will argue, sling mud and divide a country by even talking about putting a locked door on our country," said Chris Clem, who spent 27 1/2 years with the federal law enforcement agency, including four years as chief agent at the crossing in Yuma, Arizona.
"We cannot make progress on the immigration until we close the border."
Yuma ranked in the top three crossings for apprehension of migrants, with the Rio Grande and Del Rio Sectors in Texas. Clem's old turf stretched more than 125 miles.
Clem will appear Thursday night from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Backyard Brewery in Manchester for a policy discussion sponsored by the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation. The event is open to the public who reserve a spot.
He spoke to the Union Leader on Wednesday, hours before the Republican presidential candidates were to meet for their second debate, in Simi Valley, California.
Immigration is sure to get plenty of attention among those contenders. In recent months, the issue has soared to the top of priorities for likely voters, even in this northern border state far from Mexico.
Clem said he decided to leave about six years before his mandatory retirement date after seeing an explosion of illegal crossings in his Yuma sector under President Joe Biden.
In 2020, Clem's 950 agents made 8,800 of the 405,000 arrests of migrants nationally.
A year later, his team made 114,000 arrests. That number peaked at 320,000 in 2022.
"For the first 25 years of my career, progress was being made under every administration. I came in under Clinton then served under Bush, Obama and Trump. Every one of them made some headway until this one," Clem said.
Biden must know his cancellation of all of Trump's policies on the border made things worse, Clem said.
Praise, no endorsement
Clem praised presidential candidates and governors, including New Hampshire's Chris Sununu, who took the time to visit the border and talk one-on-one with agents on the ground.
"When we say finish the wall, the wall was more of a slogan. For our agents it was an entire wall, the technology, sensors, cameras, lights, all-weather access roads. You need all of that to be at peak effectiveness, especially given the limited manpower we have in place," Clem said.
Today, Yuma and many other crossings have pallets of unused steel, cable and lights that have never been hooked up, he said.
"Without that finished wall so-called, we are just wasting our time," Clem said.
At times, old-fashioned common sense — not high tech — gets the job done.
Clem said the best way to detect underground tunnels being built by illegal crossers is to bring in a truck that pours water onto the parched, desert roads.
"Spraying water will create these holes or depressions that come to a stop and very often the water's not moving down any lower because there's a tunnel being built there," Clem said.
"Keep it simple."
Beyond the infrastructure, Clem said local business and political leaders need to assess their workforce needs and push for changes in visa policies to ensure an adequate pool of foreign workers to fill job openings.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that Mexicans dominate the immigrant population at the border, Clem said.
"In Yuma, we had residents from 116 countries come here. Rarely did Mexico make the top 10," Clem said.
"It was like a UN in our holding facilities, which added to the strain and stress of our agents."
The influx of illegal immigrants to cities run by Democrats has helped expand awareness about the crisis, he said.
"The fact that it is happening to people who have stood firm and got a bullhorn and say, 'We welcome you, we are a sanctuary state, we are sanctuary city' and then it becomes, 'Not in my backyard,'" Clem said.
"I hope that it resonates with the powers that be inside the Beltway, but like many things they are slow to act and react."
On any given day, 50% of staff from the northern border have been sent south to address staffing needs there.
This has contributed to a massive increase in illegal crossings from Canada as the cartels fly in drug smugglers to Canadian cities, from which they are able to gain easy access to the U.S. through New England, he said.
"This border (with Canada) is so vast and unincorporated, wide open, there's little infrastructure and few agents. It is extremely porous," Clem said.
"Every town is a border town, every state is a border state."