TOWN OF TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) – There has been a record amount of migrants this year caught illegally crossing our Southern Border with Mexico, according to data from U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection.

News 4 was granted exclusive access to Border Patrol and CBP operations, to see how federal agents in Western New York are trying to address the migrant situation digitally.

The issue of illegal immigration has made national headlines recently, with states in the south sending migrants to northern states and with New York City Mayor Eric Adams issuing a state of emergency due to an influx of migrants.

Customs and Border Protection tracks how many people annually have unlawfully crossed the Southern Border from Mexico into the U.S.; from nearly one million in 2019 to 1.7 million last year and a record 2.3 million migrants so far, this year. This includes unaccompanied minors, accompanied minors, families and adults who are crossing alone.

“It’s more migrants or non-citizens crossing the border than I have seen in my 17-year-career,” said Russell Eiser, special operations supervisor with U.S. Border Patrol, “We encounter from Peru, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Columbia, Cuba, pick a country and we’re encountering it on the Southwest Border.”

To address the situation, Border Patrol and CBP agents from Northern Border stations in recent years have regularly been deployed to Southern Border stations on a rotating basis for 30-day deployments.

“The biggest challenge was the agents being deployed, them being away from their families and stuff like that that was kind of a tough thing for them to go through,” Eiser said, “We try to get our agents as much time to be prepared, we use our resources like peer support to help our agents that are continually being deployed on a rotating basis.”

Border Patrol has added a new tool – conducting migrant intake digitally with virtual processing.

The way virtual processing works, migrants on the Southern Border are in detention cells, then they would be called up by a Border Patrol agent down there to a virtual processing terminal to be interviewed by an agent in Buffalo.

“It’s another tool that Border Patrol is using to kind of lessen the burden on Northern Border sectors that manpower burden, not only on the sector and their operations, but the agent having to be deployed for 30 days, the agent’s family having their spouse, significant other gone for 30 days and obviously there’s a cost benefit to not having to deploy an agent,” Eiser said, “It’s a shift in strategy, but a tool we just added to our current strategy.”

Agents here use Microsoft Teams to conduct the interviews, which can range from 20 minutes to an hour. News 4 wasn’t allowed to show you how interviews are actually conducted because of security purposes.

“They’re all basically given a notice to appear, so based on their criminal background, they could be held for detention or deported or paroled into the United States based on the need of the agency at that time,” Eiser said, “And then they’re good to go and then down there they’ll push them over to ICE either for detention or release or whatever that pathway is for them.”

Any issues with false documentation or perhaps, a migrant not being truthful with federal agents, that would most likely be handled at a Southern Border station.

Border Patrol says all six stations in their Buffalo sector are using virtual processing from Erie, Pa. to Wellesley Island upstate. This includes stations in the Town of Tonawanda and in Niagara Falls.
Virtual Processing is not being done at bridge crossings to Canada.

Officials say Border Patrol is conducting about 800 virtual processing cases everyday, to help address the migrant crisis digitally.

The use of virtual processing has helped Border Patrol and CBP go from having 30 to 35 percent of their agents being deployed on a rotating basis, to now having less than 5 percent. The use of contractors and processing coordinators has also helped in getting that number down.

Jeff Preval is an award-winning anchor and reporter who joined the News 4 team in December 2021. See more of his work here.