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The Department of Homeland Security lacks operational control of the border, a top official told lawmakers, a significant admission as Republicans accuse the Biden administration of failing to secure the US-Mexico border.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mark Green (R-Tenn.) pressed Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz Wednesday on the matter during a field hearing in Pharr, Texas, asking whether the Department of Homeland Security has “operational control of our entire border.”
“No, sir,” Ortiz said.
Operational control is a technical term rooted in federal law that sets a virtually impossible requirement of preventing “all unlawful entries” into the US. Republicans have embraced the standard as a measure of Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s performance, and accused the secretary of lying by saying the agency has operational control. Many in the House’s GOP majority are seeking to impeach Mayorkas on those grounds.
Ortiz gave a more nuanced answer when describing whether the border is “secure,” explaining how the situation varies across different sectors and how, on many counts, the Border Patrol has been better able to keep pace with migrant arrivals in recent months.
Ortiz broke with the administration on several points throughout the hearing, saying he disagreed with President Joe Biden’s decision to halt border wall construction and sees the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy as a way to improve border management.
Wednesday’s hearing marks Republicans’ latest expedition to the border, a popular spot for field hearings and tours this year as the GOP majority in the House batters the Biden administration for its border security policies. Democrats announced this week they wouldn’t attend the hearing because they viewed it as a political attack on the Biden administration.
Ortiz, meeting reporters ahead of the hearing, said he welcomed the many congressional delegations to the border because he sees the trips as opportunities for Border Patrol officials to explain the agency’s needs.
US officials have logged record migrant encounters at the southern border through much of Biden’s term — though numbers have dropped the past two months, coinciding with a new set of enforcement measures and legal pathways for select migrants.
“The new border enforcement measures kept February’s overall encounter numbers nearly even with January,” CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller said in a statement Wednesday as the agency released its latest monthly statistics.
Ortiz praised tools that “allow us to do a better job of managing this border,” including asylum restrictions and then-President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program forcing migrants to wait south of the border pending the review of their claims for entry.
Biden officials ended “Remain in Mexico,” but are seeking to reinstate a version of Trump-era restrictions that make it harder for migrants to seek asylum in the US if they haven’t sought protection in third countries they’ve traversed. DHS has also unveiled a process for some nationalities to seek humanitarian parole in the US and for migrants to use a mobile app to make appointments to seek entry at a legal port of entry — though both routes are limited.
Ortiz’s comments were “profound,” committee Chairman Green said in an interview on the sidelines of the hearing in south Texas. “All those policies would fix the problem,” Green said, referring to the Trump-era restrictions the chief cited.
Other Republicans on the committee described Ortiz’s comments as “groundbreaking” and “a breath of fresh air.”
Ortiz also told lawmakers he needs more “officers on the frontlines” to tighten border security, but he also stressed the importance of efficient processing. Border security has long been treated as a three-legged stool focused on personnel, infrastructure, and technology, he said.
“But changing conditions require a fourth leg, which is a processing enterprise,” he said. Spending to improve processing, including coordinators who help manage apprehended migrants, have helped agents get back in the field, he said.
Steven Cagen, a top official at DHS’s Homeland Security Investigations, told lawmakers his team needs more resources to investigate the rising number of fentanyl seizures US Customs and Border Protection makes at ports of entry.
Partisanship marred Wednesday’s field hearing before it started. Democrats announced earlier this week they wouldn’t attend, accusing their Republican counterparts of using the trip to attack the Biden administration and score political points with “extreme rhetoric.”
The hearing was titled “Failure By Design: Examining Secretary’s Mayorkas’ Border Crisis.” A second panel of witnesses included local officials and a National Border Patrol Council representative, who are all vocal critics of the administration.
Green said committee Democrats were AWOL — absent without leave — and ignoring their mission to oversee border policies. Members of the committee also criticized the timing of Democrats’ decision, announced just two days before the hearing. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) complained that Democrats canceled even after they had made travel arrangements to attend.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the committee’s top Democrat, said his colleagues across the aisle were not “forthcoming about the planning of this hearing.”
“This hearing was planned as a partisan political stunt from the start, and there’s no way Democrats would legitimize it with our presence,” Thompson said in a statement to Bloomberg Government.
Democrats had their standard opportunity to invite a witness to the hearing. Their choice was Cagen, the Homeland Security Investigations official. They indicated they didn’t get adequate communication about other parts of the trip. Some Republicans toured border operations with Texas Department of Public Safety officials on Tuesday. Republicans have skipped numerous field hearings Democrats organized in past years.
Rep. Lou Correa (Calif.), the top Democrat on the panel’s border security subcommittee, made his own trip to tour border facilities in Laredo, Texas, on Tuesday. Correa said it’s his “duty to be on the frontlines.”
“I pledge to continue to be, hopefully alongside my Congressional colleagues, crafting policy and making decisions on the ground — not from behind a desk in Washington,” he said in a statement.
White House and DHS officials went on defense before and during Wednesday’s hearing. White House spokesman Ian Sams issued a statement slamming House Republicans for voting against government funding legislation last year that boosted Border Patrol resources and agents.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org