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House oversight panel clashes at hearing on border security

Chairman James R. Comer said a tweet from the official account for committee Democrats questioned ‘the motives of a colleague’

Chairman James R. Comer, R-Ky., and ranking member Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., prepare Tuesday for a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing on border security.
Chairman James R. Comer, R-Ky., and ranking member Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., prepare Tuesday for a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing on border security. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers on a House oversight panel traded barbs Tuesday at a hearing over the Biden administration’s policies at the U.S.-Mexico border, as Democrats accused their Republican colleagues of fueling inflammatory rhetoric against migrants.

Rep. James R. Comer, R-Ky., who chairs the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, said the aim of the hearing was “to gather facts about the border crisis from career law enforcement officials.” It featured testimony from two U.S. Border Patrol chiefs from sectors in Texas and Arizona and was the second House hearing on the border this month.

But congressional Democrats on the oversight committee argued again that the new Republican majority in the House held the hearing as a political opportunity to hammer the administration on high migration levels.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said migrants have been “increasingly dehumanized as a direct result of Republicans’ xenophobic rhetoric.” Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, D-Fla., accused Republicans of launching the hearing with “hyperbole and posturing.” Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., said his Republican colleagues are trying to “further their narrative and the agenda they want to push.”

And Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, condemned Republicans for blocking immigration bills Democrats had passed, including a bipartisan immigration package the Senate passed a decade ago.

“The political problem on Capitol Hill is that when it comes to working out balanced, common-sense immigration policy solutions, Republicans driven by the MAGA wing have been systematically thwarting and derailing comprehensive efforts to improve America’s immigration system and strengthen border enforcement for years,” Raskin said in his opening remarks.

Comer pushed back against those remarks. “I believe my Democrat friends are confusing real oversight with fanning flames. Conducting oversight allows us to gather facts, to solve problems, not fan flames,” Comer said.

The dispute came to a head with a tweet from the official Twitter account for committee Democrats that said Republicans “are using today’s hearing to amplify white nationalist conspiracy theories instead of a comprehensive solution to protect our borders and strengthen our immigration system.”

Comer read the tweet out loud. He called it “very disturbing” and said it was against committee rules to “question the motives of a colleague.”

The reading of the tweet also prompted a sharp rebuke from Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., who interjected after the witnesses were sworn in.

“For my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who want to state that we’re using this hearing for white nationalism, I’m not doing that,” said Donalds, who is Black. “So, if you feel that strongly, come walk up to this side of the room and let’s talk about it face-to-face.”

The tweet was raised again at the end of the hearing during a testy exchange between Comer and Raskin.

Raskin had, in his closing remarks, emphasized various recent mass murders motivated by the “great replacement theory,” an extremist white nationalist belief, and pointed to shootings in recent years at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Raskin said there are members on this committee who have “indulged in that kind of rhetoric” and encouraged them to denounce it.

Comer said he had assumed the tweet was written by a staffer. It appears Raskin stands by it, Comer said. “It appears to me that the two sides couldn’t be any different on border security,” he added.

Raskin responded that there are “legitimate differences” in opinions about how to approach the border, but stressed that “people are getting killed because of the ‘great replacement theory.’”

Comer retorted with a reference to fentanyl smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico.

“We believe that people are getting killed because of the fentanyl that’s coming across the border every day,” Comer said.

Border resources

The two agents testifying Tuesday — Gloria Chavez, chief patrol agent of the Rio Grande Valley sector, and John Modlin, chief patrol agent of the Tucson sector — largely fielded questions about increases in migration and the fentanyl seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border. Both chief agents agreed the border agency would be helped by more resources.

Chavez described the situation at the border as “a bit overwhelming” and said that “any type of support that we can get from our congressional representatives” would help.

Modlin said the agency currently has roughly 19,300 agents, but that he doesn’t have enough agents in his sector. He estimated that 22,000 would be a “reasonable” number of agents to have on staff.

Congressional Republicans used their questioning to sound the alarm on “gotaways,” or migrants who evade detention by border agents, as well as on the number of migrants apprehended who were on a terrorist watch list.

Republicans also blamed the administration’s border policies for the fentanyl addiction crisis in the U.S., asking the agents about how drug cartels operate south of the border. Democrats, however, pointed to statistics showing that most of the fentanyl is seized at ports of entry and vehicle checkpoints, and is not found on asylum-seekers.

Chavez deferred some questions regarding how fentanyl is trafficked into the country to the Office of Field Operations, the part of Customs and Border Protection that oversees the points of entry where vehicles cross. There was not an OFO representative present at the hearing.

The Oversight Committee hearing was the second congressional hearing within the span of a week to center on the southwest border, part of a stated push by congressional Republicans to heighten scrutiny of the administration’s border policies.

The appearance of the committee’s witnesses followed some contentious wrangling between committee Republicans and the Department of Homeland Security.

The committee had announced it invited four Border Patrol chief agents to testify, but last month Comer said in a letter that DHS had refused to let them testify.

Comer warned that if the department continues to block congressional oversight, he “will be forced to consider the use of the compulsory process.”

According to a letter obtained by CQ Roll Call, dated the day before Comer’s letter, DHS had initially offered the committee in-person testimony from U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz, and a remote members-only briefing from others, “to avoid any disruption in operations in sectors along the southwest border.”

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