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Juan Acosta has been running this area’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, office as acting field office director and will soon be named as the El Paso director of an agency that’s very busy these days.

There’s an interesting irony in that because Acosta, 49, is the son of parents who fled Cuba in the early 50s and resettled in Hialeah, Florida, missing Fidel Castro’s communist revolution and the overthrow of the U.S.-supported Bautista government in 1959.

Now in charge of 18 ports of entry in Texas and New Mexico, he’s been with ICE since 2006, when he moved over from the Border Patrol after seven years with that agency. That’s 22 years in immigration law enforcement.

Before coming to El Paso in 2019, he was the officer in charge at ICE’s very busy detention center in Miami called the Krome Service Processing Center.

Miami, he said, is a very “fast” place to live, in contrast to El Paso and the friendly, warm community it’s known for.

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Acosta himself seems different than what you might expect from a man who spent his early years in the U.S. Border Patrol before moving over to ICE, which detains and deports thousands of people a month in El Paso and is always on the lookout for dangerous criminals in the mix.

But the vast majority are desperately fleeing dangerous places. Now, many are unaccompanied children, whom Acosta says need to be treated like the “precious babies” they are.

“When we go out, we look at all these faces that are coming through, not knowing what circumstances have caused them to migrate, and I believe that every single soul that we touch is important – and they are treated that way,” he said.

And, as hard as the job is for the officers under him, he expects them to act with the same kindness for the migrant children and adults they encounter.

“You know, those heartbeats that we have inside the detention enterprise deserve to keep on beating,” he said.

Acosta recently sat down for his first, his very first, formal interview with a news reporter and talked about growing up in the Miami-Dade County area, being an American who is “culturally Cuban,” and about how important it is for Americans to understand and appreciate the officers protecting the border in these tough times.

Q: I understand this is your first formal interview with a news organization after all of these years. Why?

Well, because I finally reached a position where I believe I’m seasoned enough to be able to answer questions and answer with some type of validity for you and for those that read the article. And I’m happy to do it.

Q: Where would you say you’re from?

I’m proud to be from the City of Progress, which is the nickname for Hialeah. A lot of Cuban migrants settled in Hialeah, including my parents, in the early 50s. And I’m happy to be from South Florida where it is just a melting pot of all different cultures and societies.

Q: So, your family was among the folks who crossed the Straits of Florida to get away from what was about to happen in Cuba?

They actually had their own boat. They came with visas, and I know my mom was naturalized when she was a teenager and became a United States citizen. They settled in Miami for what was supposed to be a temporary period – until communism blew over.

My whole life has been surrounded by migration because in 1980, if everybody remembers, it was at Mariel Boatlift. I was 6 years old, and I remember it. I didn’t know the number back then, but later I learned there were 250,000 refugees that came across into South Florida from Cuba.

My mom was a very young woman. My father was a little older when he came in the ’60s. But my grandparents were with us. We all lived in the same house, so Spanish was my first language.

I was very happy to have been raised in a household with different generations and different family members because uncles lived there and aunts lived there and grandparents lived there.

Q: How does that affect the job you do and how you see it?

I’m an American. But culturally, I’m a Cuban and because of my grandparents, because of my parents. Those Cuban values of family, of faith – we’re Catholic – continue to guide me in a direction that has shaped the way that I look at the immigration process and whom we come into contact with.

Q: How was it that you joined the Border Patrol?

I had a family member who was a customs officer, and he was trying to direct me to join the Customs Service. This was early, when America Online was first coming on. I went to the Hialeah Public Library and signed on to USA Jobs or whatever it was called then, and I saw an icon which was on fire – kind of a meme that said U.S. Border Patrol was on fire.

That meant, “We’re hiring. Hot jobs.” That was in the late ’90s, and they called and said we’re going to hire you for the U.S Border Patrol, and you’re going to enter duty in a city called Laredo, Texas.

I had to go back to the library and do a search for Laredo to see what I was getting into.

Q: Did you like it?

It was a great experience. Although I am a Hispanic, moving to Laredo was of a different element of Hispanic culture – the phenomenal culture in Laredo.

There is a phenomenal culture here in El Paso, and I’m happy to be part of it. El Paso has its own culture in a very accepting city, very accepting people.

Q: Why did you move over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement?

It was an opportunity to have a complete picture of the immigration process. We detect, encounter, arrest, prosecute, detain and remove. We’re the only agency that does all that.

Q: For those of us who get the agencies confused, what does ICE do?

ICE has two directorates – Homeland Security Investigations and Enforcement and Removal Operations. When you hear folks under ICE that are capturing counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines or personal protective equipment, that’s when you’re talking about Homeland Security Investigations.

When you’re looking at Enforcement and Removal Operations, or ERO, we are what is considered the legacy immigration process. Those folks are doing the detention, the removal and the arrest of primarily non-citizens that are in the U.S. in a non-lawful posture.

Q: Has the situation you’ve encountered in El Paso changed your views, especially since COVID-19 came along, with people fleeing for health reasons and everything else? Is there a difference between what is going on now and what was going on 10 or 15 years ago?

Although the job has remained the same, the way that we do our job under the lens of COVID-19 has changed. We’ve had to slow down. We’ve had to make sure that we keep people separate. We have to make sure that we treat those that are more vulnerable to COVID-19 – that we look at whether continued detention is the appropriate way to approach this.

You know, those heartbeats that we have inside the detention enterprise deserve to keep on beating. And, if we can allow that to occur outside of the detention enterprise, we’ve got to look at that case and ask, “Who is this person that we’re detaining – and why? And what is their vulnerability to COVID-19?”

It’s changed for everybody; we’re not unique. It’s changed for anybody that handles a congregate setting – schools, churches or jails. But we’re doing it with a population, some of them vulnerable, so it becomes difficult. But I think we’re getting it done right.

Q: Did you all do a good job of preventing widespread outbreaks?

Yes, we have. I’ve had, and I have, COVID-positive people detained. I have persons that have been in direct contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, and you have to isolate those persons in a certain way to continue to detect and look for the signs and symptoms of the disease.

In March 2020, there were not a lot of tests going around, so when we were able to have the capacity to test large amounts of people, we encountered a sizeable number of folks that have tested positive.

Q: There are calls out there for abolishing ICE. Is there any possibility of that happening?

What I can tell you is this: 50% of the people, on average, are not going to agree with us 100% of the time. The law that we enforce generally is administrative. Nobody is sentenced to be in ICE custody in one of my detention centers. If somebody is going through removal proceedings, it’s an administrative detention. So there is a lot of controversy when it comes to that. ICE does enforce criminal law. There are people that we prosecute in federal court and when they are convicted in federal court, they’re sentenced to time in the Bureau of Prisons.

When a non-citizen is going through removal proceedings, they’re not sentenced to serve any time at the El Paso processing center. But the administrative order that a judge can administer is a removal order. So then, my group of folks have to turn around and negotiate with consular and embassy officials to obtain a travel document or permission for us to be able to remove that person to their country of citizenship.

But it’s a concerning question because, although I’ve been in for 22 years, there are officers and agents out there that are just starting their careers. I’m always concerned about a new deportation officer when she gets home, after a hard day of putting in 10 hours of work enforcing the immigration law and keeping this community safe, that when she turns on the TV, she is seeing something portraying her badge as something that is not a positive thing.

I’m also cognizant that they may have children who can then turn around and have that conversation with their parent and ask Mom, “Is this something that you really want to do? Why is it that folks want to abolish your position? What is it? Are you doing something wrong, Mom?”

And I’m here to tell you, David, and I’ll say this with all conviction, my officers are not doing anything bad. My officers are keeping this community safe. They’re making sure that they prioritize what it is that they do: national security, border security, public safety. That is what they do.

Q: What is the No. 1 country of people crossing illegally?

I believe Mexico is still up there, and there’s a lot of focus on what they call the Northern Triangle countries – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

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Q: We hear that mixed in with the people crossing are criminals who have very different purposes for coming here. Do you catch those kinds of people? Is it true that there are dangerous people trying to get into this country all the time?

Yes, we’re getting dangerous people that are trying to get into the country for dangerous reasons. Transnational criminal organizations are exploiting the immigration process. Transnational gang members are being caught on our Southwest border every single day by us and Border Patrol agents, Homeland Security Investigations and those that work at our ports of entry.

The only way to determine how well you do is by making sure that you catch all the others. At that point, you have your asylum seekers. You have vulnerable populations that are coming through, but you also have those whose intent for coming into the U.S. is not as pure.

Q: And how would you characterize them? I mean, are we talking terrorists or folks connected with the cartels who want to smuggle drugs?

The way I would characterize it? I would ask you to remember back when two precious children were dropped from a 30-foot wall by a smuggler right here in Santa Teresa – those two precious packages. What is that person’s intention?

Were they just fulfilling their contract by depositing these kids in the U.S. and by whatever means? What else would they be willing to drop into the United States? In this particular instance, it was two young little girls.

You know what I tell the chief here all the time? I’m talking about Chief Gloria Chavez, a spectacular human being and chief of the Border Patrol. I tell her, “Chief, you don’t encounter and arrest children, you rescue children. Can you imagine if those two precious packages were not found in the desert in time?”

The border is not open. Jumping the fence is still unlawful, and being thrown over the fence is worse than that.

Q: How is Miami different from El Paso? It seems like a very different place with different issues when it comes to this kind of job.

My home is green, and Miami is very, very fast.

Q: Some think we’re pretty slow here in El Paso.

Well, the opposite of fast is not slow in that context. When you’re fast, you miss things on the periphery. El Paso doesn’t miss things in the periphery. This community is very engaging in the cooperation and collaboration I have with our partners, both federally and locally.

Q: How many officers and civilians are there under your responsibility here?

I think the number was close to 600 people.

Q: And the territory that you have responsibility for is from where to where?

I have 18 ports of entry. I have two Border Patrol sectors, both El Paso and Big Bend. I have the whole state of New Mexico. I’ve got five detention centers. It’s a pretty vast operation, and it’s one of the most important on the border. It goes from Presidio all the way to Palomas and Lordsburg way out west. The furthest port of entry to the west is Antelope Wells. And several international airports in West Texas and New Mexico.

Q: Does being Hispanic give you a special perspective on the job?

Absolutely. It gives me a way of connecting with those that we serve and those folks that come into our jurisdiction. It allows me to create a connection so I can get into a deeper understanding of what a person’s purpose is in the United States.

Q: I would think that being in charge of repatriating immigrants who came a long way to get here would be a hard, and a hardening, job. What do you and the agency do to try to keep that from happening among your officers?

Great question. Resiliency and resiliency training, and getting somebody into El Paso that understands because we don’t want to become hardened. We want to be able to be soft.

I wrote something down today that our director said, and I want to repeat it. He said, “We want to be strong, transparent and accountable. We want to be nimble and forward-leaning in our operational means.”

What that tells me is that I know I need to make sure that our officers have the appropriate way to decompress. What we see and what law enforcement sees is not what your everyday career behind a desk is exposed to.

Seeing 1,200 children in a detained setting is different from seeing it on television or hearing about it. And when our officers see that it takes a toll. People that work for us are part of this community. They’re parents, your neighbors, your parishioners. They’re sitting next to you when you go to lunch. They’re at the Chihuahuas’ game tonight. These are the people that work for us.

We’re all in this together. So there has to be a way that I can provide our staff a way to decompress – a way to continuously learn how to be resilient when it comes to everyday job pressures.

Q: What do you all do to do that?

We’re trying to get additional training therapists to come in, point officers in the direction for things to read, model the way to be resilient yourself and our staff to be resilient and act in a certain way when in front of the people we serve and those that we detain.

Q: A significant majority of refugees, many of them children, come from three Central American countries, especially Guatemala, and speak only their indigenous language. How do you communicate with them?

ICE has a language access program for those with limited English. We use interpreters and translators, even sign language, to be able to communicate with those that we come into contact with.

We don’t have any children in custody. That’s a different agency.

Q: Do you have people who are proficient in those languages?

We have a great contract with a company that we are able to dial-up and say this particular person speaks this particular language and put them on speakerphone. Now, we have a poster that they point to the language – if they can read. And we have a video that not only has the words scrolled before them but the person is speaking in that particular language.

Q: When you’re talking about kids like this – someone who’s 8 years old and basically alone, who’s been sent by parents to come up here for their survival – he may not know there’s a relative in Boise or someplace like that. How long do they stay here?

They’re not in custody, and the Florida decision in Reno vs. Flores indicates that they cannot be detained for over 72 hours. Within 72 hours, those children have to be taken away from the arresting entity’s custody and placed into Health and Human Services custody so they can start trying to do that reunification process.

Asylum can be granted by the CIS (Central Index System). It could also be granted by immigration judges. During removal proceeding, kids have to have somebody that’s going to take them through. So to be released from HHS (Health and Human Services) custody, there needs to be a sponsor or relative that they go to.

Q: The Associated Press reported recently that under President Biden there are tens of thousands of asylum-seeking children being held at some 200 facilities in more than 20 states, including five with more than 1,000 children packed inside.

How is the current situation different from what was done under President Trump?

The process is still the same. I think the numbers are different.

Q: AP also reported that a facility on Fort Bliss was holding more than 4,500 children. Is that true?

We can’t say for certain that it isn’t. I don’t know.

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