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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Targeting Mayorkas, GOP takes its immigration message to the border

People on the international bridge in Reynosa, Mexico, March 16, 2023. Republicans have been making regular trips to the border with Mexico in hopes of dramatizing the United States’ immigration challenges, but they rarely account for the reality on the ground, where the number of crossings has begun to decline.

By Karoun Demirjian

Inside a college classroom barely 6 miles from the United States border with Mexico, House Republicans this month orchestrated the made-for-TV moment they had traveled here for, getting a top immigration official to concede that the government has yet to stop migrants from crossing into the country without authorization.

“No sir,” Raul L. Ortiz, the U.S. Border Patrol chief, told GOP members of the Homeland Security Committee when asked whether the government had “operational control” of the border.

The answer might seem obvious at a time when several tens of thousands of migrants are presenting themselves at the border each month, but to Republicans, who have made attacking the Biden administration on immigration a top priority — and impeaching Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, an ironclad vow — it was worth a 1,500-mile trip from Washington.

Republicans gloated about Ortiz’s statement, which was seemingly at odds with testimony Mayorkas gave to another congressional panel last year, and conservative media outlets played it on a loop. Though the government has long lacked a consistent definition of what makes the border secure, Rep. Mark E. Green, R-Tenn., chair of the panel, seized on the apparent discrepancy nonetheless, pledging on Fox News to interview every border sector chief to “investigate whether or not Mayorkas lied.”

It was the kind of spectacle that Republicans have been trying to create since they won control of the House, promising to scrutinize what they claim is a “border crisis” created by lax enforcement by President Joe Biden and Mayorkas. Over the past two months, Republicans from at least four committees and subcommittees have sent delegations to the border, pouring taxpayer dollars into three field hearings, among other ventures, in efforts to draw attention to their message and generate media coverage that propels their narrative.

During ride-along patrols before these congressional excursions, Republicans have struggled to produce visual evidence of the crisis. Last month, Judiciary Committee members saw zero apprehensions in Yuma, Arizona, prompting ridicule from Democrats, who have been boycotting the trips. Republicans on the homeland security panel reported seeing just one this month near Pharr.

Yet the lack of physical proof has not deterred Republicans from laying blame for the country’s border challenges squarely at the feet of Mayorkas, who is expected to field more Republican attacks when he testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“This secretary of DHS wants nothing more than to flood the country with people,” Green said at his committee’s session this month. He said the rise in border crossings, the growth of cartels and the domestic fentanyl epidemic were all “because of the decisions, because of the incompetence and the dishonesty” of Mayorkas.

Just a few miles from where Republicans met, the reality on the ground at the border was far different from the one presented at the field hearing.

After reaching a peak of 250,000 in December, the number of encounters between officials and migrants at the southern border has begun to decline, falling by about 40% in January, and holding steady at those levels through February. Homeland security officials, including Ortiz, have credited a number of deterrence initiatives, including new projects to beef up border infrastructure, stepped-up interdictions and an uptick in flights sending migrants back to their home countries.

“We don’t hear like they’re crossing as often as they were; it’s very, very slow,” said Lourdes Gonzalez. She runs a small shelter in a ramshackle neighborhood in Reynosa, a city on the Mexican side of the border from Pharr, that caters to migrants with medical and trauma conditions. The shelter is one in a network of facilities serving people who have made the journey to the U.S.-Mexico line, only to end up, as she calls it, “stuck.”

“All the people that we have right now, they have been here for already several months,” she added.

The slowed pace has not quieted Republican criticism. They often cite the total number of encounters between migrants and border agents since Biden took office — 4.7 million — and the 1.3 million presumed “got-aways,” border crossers whom officials failed to apprehend. Republicans say those figures far exceed the totals under President Donald Trump.

“This is an incredible increase, and it is not by mistake or accident,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, arguing that Mayorkas ought to be impeached “for his failure as secretary of homeland security to do his job to protect our country.”

Democrats say the Republican approach to such issues is part of why they have boycotted the border trips, dismissing them as craven efforts to score political points by putting on a show.

“They’re not actually interested in solutions,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who led a separate delegation of Democrats from the Judiciary Committee to the same general area of the border several days after the Republicans departed. “The problem is we need other legal pathways for people to come in, and that means we really need processing capability.”

Republicans have said they are willing to talk about increasing funding for the Department of Homeland Security, but their main goal has been to target Mayorkas, whom they accuse of both mismanaging the resources at his disposal and being negligent in asking Congress for the necessary increases to his department’s budget.

“He either lied to Congress or he’s incompetent, and both of those are not good,” Green said of Mayorkas, calling the discrepancy between his and Ortiz’s assessments of the border “a big first step” toward making a case for impeachment.

But there was little real difference between their statements. In declaring the border to be secure, Mayorkas has often relied on variations of a standard the Border Patrol defined in 2007 as “the ability to detect, respond and interdict border penetrations in areas deemed as high priority.” Ortiz, however, was using the statutory definition, displayed on a placard behind Green at the hearing: “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States.”

The Department of Homeland Security has defended its handling of the challenges, arguing that the Biden administration inherited what a spokesperson called “a dismantled immigration system” and has faced “unprecedented migration.”

“Instead of pointing fingers and trying to score political points by pursuing a baseless and reckless impeachment, Congress should work on legislative solutions for our broken immigration system, which it has not updated in over 40 years,” spokesperson Mia Ehrenberg said.

As the debate persists, problems at the border are evolving. In just a few weeks, the Biden administration is poised to institute more stringent policies to replace the pandemic-era restrictions, which expire in May. At that point, many migrant advocates worry the scale of human suffering at the border will get worse.

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