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Border chief asks House panel to boost migrant processing

House Homeland Security Committee hears that more employees are needed to address high levels of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border

Asylum-seekers line up to be processed by border agents at a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border fence near Somerton, Ariz., in December.
Asylum-seekers line up to be processed by border agents at a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border fence near Somerton, Ariz., in December. (Rebecca Noble/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz told House Republicans on Wednesday that his agency needs more technology and resources, as the number of migrants arriving at the southwest border “places tremendous strain” on the system.

Testifying at the House Homeland Security Committee’s field hearing in south Texas — which committee Democrats boycotted — Ortiz said that the current flow of migrants to the U.S-Mexico border “represents challenges, and in some areas, a crisis situation.”

“Now, unlike in previous surges, we are seeing traffic including large groups, spread across multiple locations, instead of just one or two specific sectors,” Ortiz said. “This places tremendous strain on Border Patrol resources and our operational posture.”

The Border Patrol chief, who has served in leadership roles at the agency under both the Obama and Trump administrations, specifically requested more funds to hire employees who focus on processing migrants into the country.

The U.S. has seen record-high levels of migration in the last year, though the number of migrants encountered has dipped in January and February.

He said the border agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, previously rested on a “three-legged stool” that focused on investments in personnel, infrastructure and technology.

But changing conditions globally have made more emphasis on processing, a fourth element, “critical,” Ortiz said at the hearing. Ortiz also called for more Border Patrol agents to be hired.

“Back in 2012, I had 21,370 Border Patrol agents. Right now, I have 19,016. My requirement is 22,000 Border Patrol agents. Until I can get there, I’m going to require assistance from other agencies,” Ortiz said. “But right now, for me, my priority is doing everything I can to add more personnel to my ranks, so we can make sure that Border Patrol agents are out there doing that job.”

Ortiz indicated he would also support reinstating Trump-era immigration restrictions, including a policy that required migrants to wait in Mexico for decisions in their U.S. asylum cases. He said the department’s inability to return migrants to certain countries that have strained relations with the U.S., including Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, has “been a challenge for us.”

“All of the tools DHS has at its disposal would allow us to do a better job managing this border,” Ortiz said.

Budget ahead

Ortiz’s remarks, made while testifying alongside Steven W. Cagan, an official with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s investigations arm, came days after the White House released its fiscal 2024 budget request to fund DHS and other agencies.

The request included about $15.7 million in net discretionary funds for Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security agency that houses U.S. Border Patrol, a decrease from the $16.6 million enacted this current fiscal year.

The request included funds for CBP to hire an additional 350 Border Patrol agents and for CBP and ICE to add a total of 460 processing assistants, according to a summary provided by the White House. It also included $535 million to finance border security technology at and in between the ports of entry, the summary stated.

Meanwhile, the far-right House Freedom Caucus has called for sweeping government funding cuts, which could impact border security funds. Republican Rep. Mark E. Green of Tennessee, chairman of the Homeland Security panel and a Freedom Caucus member, insisted in his opening remarks that recent high levels of migration to the southwest border have been caused by the Biden administration’s immigration policies, not a lack of resources.

But Green also signaled he wasn’t opposed to providing those resources either.

“A lack of money didn’t cause this massive sudden surge,” Green said. “Not that we don’t need more Border Patrol agents, and not that we can’t put money in certain places.”

Referencing Republican threats to slash government funding, Ian Sams, White House spokesperson for oversight, said in a statement Wednesday morning that House Republicans “are more interested in using this issue to lob debunked political attacks than actually working with the President on bipartisan solutions to strengthen our immigration system and border security.”

“Perhaps House Republicans could take the time at this hearing to look the Chief of the Border Patrol in the eye and honestly explain to him why they want to slash the funding needed to combat fentanyl trafficking, stop unlawful border crossings, and conduct other important law enforcement efforts at the border,” Sams said.

Democratic boycott

Wednesday’s hearing is the second one to be held by House Republicans near the southwest border this year. Last month, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing in Yuma, Ariz., on “the Biden Border Crisis” that featured remarks from local officials.

At both the Homeland Security and Judiciary committee field hearings, House Democrats on the committees refused to attend, spotlighting how politically fraught border security issues have become as Republicans make the issue a cornerstone this session.

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said through a spokesperson that Committee Democrats decided not to attend the hearing because it “has become clear that Republicans planned to politicize this event from the start, breaking with the Committee’s proud history of bipartisanship.”

According to a Democratic aide on the Homeland Security Committee, no Republicans attended any Democratic-led field hearings when the Democrats were in the House majority.

Several committee Republicans slammed Democrats’ decision to boycott the hearing. Green called their absence, shown clearly by the row of empty chairs, a “political stunt.”

Republicans spent most of the hearing hammering the two witnesses on whether the border was secure. They particularly criticized Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who has faced impeachment threats from House Republicans now in the majority.

“This massive crisis, this human tragedy, is the result of decisions and the incompetence of this secretary,” Green said.

A DHS spokesperson said Wednesday that the Biden administration “has surged resources to the border, reducing the number of encounters between ports of entry, disrupting more smuggling operations than ever before, and interdicting more drugs in the last two years than had been stopped in the five years prior.”

The spokesperson added that DHS “welcomes input from Congress, and looks forward to working with Members on legislative solutions for our broken immigration system, which Congress has not reformed for more than forty years.”

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