Targeting Mayorkas, G.O.P. Takes Its Immigration Message to the Border
PHARR, Texas — Inside a college classroom barely six 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 G.O.P. 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 N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, an ironclad vow — it was worth a 1,500-mile trip from Washington.
Republicans gloated about Mr. Ortiz’s statement, which was seemingly at odds with testimony Mr. Mayorkas gave to another congressional panel last year, and conservative media outlets played it on a loop. Representative Mark E. Green, Republican of Tennessee and the chairman of the panel, went on Fox News and pledged 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 Biden and Mr. 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 the ride-along patrols held before these congressional excursions, Republicans have struggled to produce visual evidence of the crisis. Last month, Judiciary Committee members saw zero apprehensions in Yuma, Ariz, 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 Mr. Mayorkas, who is expected to field more Republican attacks when he testifies on Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“This secretary of D.H.S. wants nothing more than to flood the country with people,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 percent in January, and holding steady at those levels through February. Homeland security officials, including Mr. 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. Ms. Gonzalez 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 Mr. 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 J. Trump.
“This is an incredible increase, and it is not by mistake or accident,” said Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, arguing that Mr. Mayorkas ought to be impeached “for his failure as secretary of homeland security to do his job to protect our country.”
The G.O.P.’s message has largely ignored what aid workers cite as the main reason border encounters are down: the rollout of a new policy requiring migrants to secure appointments at points of entry through an app called CBP One.
At almost every shelter in Reynosa, life stops each morning as the migrants, positioning themselves for a Wi-Fi signal, race to upload documents and photos to the app and nab appointments before they fill up, usually within minutes.
For most, it is a daily exercise in frustration. Kati, a young woman who fled Honduras and survived assault and torture in Reynosa, said she spends hours every day trying unsuccessfully to get the app to work. It can “feel like I’m in a cage,” said Kati, who declined to give her last name.
While the Biden administration has been fine-tuning the app, aid workers who support it in concept are voicing mounting concerns about how it has been rolled out. They warn that cartels are finding new ways of exploiting waiting migrants, such as demanding money from those who must travel between ports of entry to make their appointments and funneling that money into the worsening drug trade.
Some report that children are being turned into unaccompanied minors, thanks to problems with the app that forced some families to either split up or lose their chance to cross. And as more migrants are forced to wait, advocates worry that those in encampments like Camp Rio in Reynosa, where people live under tattered tarps next to an open dirt plot of human waste, will become even more vulnerable to predation; smugglers are still kidnapping and trafficking people across the Rio Grande in significant, if reduced, numbers.
But during the hearing, Republicans did not focus on the problems with the app, which allows migrants to apply for exemptions to pandemic-era immigration restrictions, instead portraying it as a tool for bringing bad actors into the country.
“Whoever fills it out just automatically gets parole when they show up at a crossing site,” Mr. Green said of CBP One. He asserted without evidence that a recent episode of frustrated migrants trying to flood a port of entry in El Paso had been a “diversionary attack” from cartels trying to sneak “fentanyl and the nefarious folks” into the 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 Representative 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Green said of Mr. Mayorkas, calling the discrepancy between his and Mr. Ortiz’s assessments of the border “a big first step” toward making a case for impeachment.
But there was little real discrepancy. The term “operational control” has lacked a consistent definition, and in declaring the border to be secure, Mr. 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.” Mr. Ortiz, however, was using the statutory definition, displayed on a placard behind Mr. 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 spokeswoman 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,” said the spokeswoman, Mia Ehrenberg.
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.