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The Immigration Battles Begin
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The Immigration Battles Begin

Lawmakers hear from law enforcement leaders about challenges at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent watches over a group of immigrants after tracking them through rugged terrain in Arizona last September. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Partisan sparring over immigration began long before Tuesday morning’s House oversight panel hearing, and it continued with Republicans and Democrats wrangling over how to address drug smuggling and the porous U.S.-Mexico border.

Republicans were unequivocal about where the real blame should lie: President Joe Biden “signaled our borders were open,” House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer said, attributing “dangerous, chaotic, and inhumane” border conditions to the president’s policies. Meanwhile, the White House in a memo said House Republicans “are more interested in staging political stunts” and “pushing an agenda that would make things worse at the border.”

Tuesday’s hearing and one at the House Judiciary Committee last week illustrated Republicans’ plans to use dysfunction at America’s southern border as evidence of the Biden administration’s shortcomings. A number of Republicans—including Comer—have called for impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over his handling of border enforcement, but the secretary’s name rarely surfaced during Tuesday’s hearing. (If the GOP were to move on impeachment, the House Judiciary would have jurisdiction over the inquiry.) Republicans instead focused on Biden himself hours before the State of the Union address.

Eyewitnesses from the border.

The two U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who testified Tuesday had one message: The CBP is stretched thin and needs more resources.

John Modlin, the chief agent of the Tucson, Arizona sector, said last year border agents carried out rescues for 3,500 “lost or distressed migrants,” taken advantage of by cartels and struggling to make it through dangerous mountain terrain.

“No one crosses the border in Tucson sector without going through the cartels,” he said. Migrants are often left “hours from the nearest paved roads,” Modlin added, which means agents must carry out dangerous mountain rescues. Over the last two decades, the remains of more than 3,356 border crossers were found in southern Arizona, according to a 2021 report by the Binational Migration Institute and the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Science.

Modlin described his sector as particularly undermanned but pinpointed what he said was an overall problem: Border Patrol boasts a force of 19,300 employees but needs closer to 22,000 to be at full capacity. (CBP has struggled with being understaffed for years.) Yet, the number of encounters in his sector has doubled recently. Comparing 2021 to 2022, apprehensions spiked from 196,891 to 261,913.

The other witness, Gloria Chavez, chief agent for Texas’ Rio Grande Valley sector, described ways agents seek to foil cartel smuggling operations and addressed questions from lawmakers about humanitarian issues, such as unaccompanied children attempting the crossing. At one point, Rep. Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican, asked about instances of sexual assault of women and girls making the journey across the border. “There are cases we have debriefed, many of the young ladies, migrants, that have said they have been abused,” Chavez said.

A focus on fentanyl.

Many Republicans’ questions concerned drug smuggling, as GOP lawmakers blamed Biden’s border policies for the opioid crisis in the United States: 107,375 people in the United States died from drug overdose and drug poisoning in 2021 (the last year for which complete data is available). Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl were involved in 67 percent of those deaths, according to federal data.

Fentanyl is primarily trafficked from Mexico after local cartels and other transnational criminal organizations produce it. To get it into the U.S., they’re often tapping Americans crossing the border: In 2021, U.S. citizens made up over 86 percent of those convicted for trafficking fentanyl, according to a report from the libertarian Cato Institute. David Bier, the report’s author, noted that “over 90 percent of fentanyl seizures occur at legal crossing points or interior vehicle checkpoints, not on illegal migration routes, so U.S. citizens (who are subject to less scrutiny) when crossing legally are the best smugglers.”

Law enforcement intercepted over 14,000 pounds of fentanyl in fiscal year 2022, with the Office of Field Operations intercepting over 12,000 pounds at all ports of entry. Border Patrol, which also includes interior checkpoints and vehicle screenings, seized 2,200 pounds of fentanyl last year. (The Biden administration has announced plans to install 123 new large-scale scanners at ports of entry to increase the detection of fentanyl, Bloomberg Government reported Tuesday.)

But Republicans contend it’s hard to assess the true scope of the drug-smuggling problem because of “gotaways”—those who escape detection. According to Comer, there have been 300,000 gotaways in the first four months of fiscal year 2023.

Rep. Katie Porter, a Democrat from California, argued that Republicans were interpreting the high number of drug apprehensions as “failures,” but the data could be read another way: “To me the fact that you’re seizing these drugs is a success. Clearly we’re doing something successful at the ports of entry.”

Great replacement controversy.

One of the more heated squabbles began at the hearing’s outset, when Democrats accused Republicans of racism. The official Twitter account for Democrats on the committee said ahead of the hearing Republicans were weaponizing the panel to “amplify white nationalist conspiracy theories.”

Comer said the tweet ran afoul the committee’s rules, and Donalds, who is black, spoke up to say he was not advancing white nationalism: “If you feel that strongly, come walk up to this side of the room and let’s talk about it face-to-face.”

The topic resurfaced several times, showing what likely will be the tir-for-tat dynamic that will play out among Republicans and Democrats in hearings to come.

“What is this answer to this mess for Biden and the Democrats?” Rep. Paul Gosar, an anti-establishment Republican who has faced criticism for ties to white nationalists, asked about conditions at the border. “More Big Brother? More control? Even changing our culture?”

That comment sparked a response later from freshman Rep. Maxwell Frost. “That isn’t about oversight,” the Democrat said. “It’s about stoking the fears of immigrants and those seeking asylum, and it’s something I take personally as a son of a Cuban refugee.”

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District of Columbia, said Republican politicians “demonize migrants who are attempting to cross the Southern Border. They call it an invasion.” She also referenced “anti-immigrant extremists,” like the 2019 El Paso, Texas, shooter. She asked how such language, “including the rhetoric used by lawmakers” impacted federal agents’ work at the border. 

Chavez tells her agents to not pay attention to “the rhetoric, anything they see that’s negative, and focus on the mission,” she said.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, also referenced mass shootings in which perpetrators voiced white nationalist beliefs (such as the 2022 Buffalo shooting and the 2019 El Paso shooting). “People are getting killed because of the Great Replacement theory,” he said.

Comer diverted: “People are getting killed because of the fentanyl that’s coming across the border every day.”

More partisan sniping continued.

“You’d think that the cartels were created two years ago,” Rep. Dan Goldman, a freshman Democrat from New York, complained at one point. “The cartels have been operating for decades and decades.”

Republicans fired back. “After two years of gaslighting, obstruction, stonewalling, and lies we’re finally hearing straight from the source,” Rep. Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican, said.

Meanwhile, it became clear that the hearing had only scratched the surface of U.S. immigration woes. Witnesses at times had to refer lawmakers to other aspects of the immigration process.

At one point, Rep. Gary Palmer, an Alabama Republican, asked about the number of migrants who miss their immigration hearings after being paroled into the country.

“I think when we talk about border security, we have to recognize it’s much bigger than border patrol,” Modlin said. “We are really the first 24-72 hours.”

The next border-focused hearing will be next week—in Texas. It will be a joint hearing between the Oversight panel and the Subcommittee on Health. The title of the hearing: “President Biden’s Border Crisis is a Public Health Crisis.”

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.