By John Haughey
A 25-year United States Border Patrol agent and a Texas Sheriff told Congressional lawmakers that Mexican cartels are pushing illegal immigrants across the border in orchestrated surges to distract law enforcement from drug-smuggling operations targeting other sections of the border, contributing to the corresponding wave of deaths related to fentanyl poisoning.
“Each and every day along the entirety of our southwest border, criminal cartels dictate when, where, and how illegal border crossers enter our country,” said National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, who represents 16,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents and support staff, in testifying before members of the Oversight & Investigations subcommittees of both the House Energy & Commerce and Health committees on Feb. 15.
“The cartels have figured out the loopholes in our laws,” he said during the two-hour hearing entitled “President Biden’s Border Crisis is a Public Health Crisis,” staged in Weslaco near McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley. “And they know that when our agents are forced to process huge numbers of illegal border crossers, we are unable to properly patrol the border.”
Brooks County Sheriff Urbino “Benny” Martinez said when people surge across the border, Border Patrol agents and U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) officers must respond, leaving large areas unpatrolled, except by overtaxed local law enforcement agencies.
He said this places strain and costs on his five deputies, first responders, and taxpayers within his 943-square-mile county of 7,400 residents, 70 miles miles north of the border along two major highways, which includes the nation’s largest U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint, Falfurrias.
1.2 Million ‘Got-Aways’
Martinez in his witness testimony said that between the Border Patrol, CBP, and other agencies, 1.2 million “got-a-ways” were reported in 2022 in Texas. And that’s just an estimate of those who escaped from groups of illegal immigrants detected and detailed at the border.
“We have no idea if they’re cartel, other criminals, or terrorists because the federal government has failed to enforce border security efforts and Border Patrol’s time has been taken up processing the majority of migrants giving themselves up at the border,” he said.
In the last few years, cartels are getting more sophisticated, with 1,300 drone flights observed coming from south of the border, Martinez said. He called on Congress to “take the gloves off” and restore the Trump Era “stay in Mexico” order, clarify the abused asylum rule, and to “put up ‘The Wall.’”
Doing so will “let them work,” he said of Border Patrol agents and CBP officers. “They can do the job, They know what they are doing. Let them do the work they are supposed to be doing.”
The field hearing was the second staged in Texas this week by Republican-led committees. On Feb. 13, the Natural Resources Committee’s Energy & Mineral Resources Subcommittee held a hearing in Odessa on how federal energy production supports local communities.
The House field canvases conclude Feb. 16 with the Energy & Commerce Committee’s Energy, Climate & Grid Security Subcommittee hearing in Midland, entitled, “American energy expansion: Improving local economies and communities’ way of life.”
House Energy & Commerce Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said that among the legislation the hearings want to spotlight is the proposed “HALT Fentanyl Act” to “secure the southern border and give law enforcement the tools they need to keep this lethal poison out of our communities.”
The hearings will look at “fentanyl proliferation in the U.S. and the damage of President Joe Biden shutting down American energy,” Rodgers said.
CCP, Cartels Collaborating
Judd in his witness testimony said the policies “enacted by President Biden and his Department of Homeland Security have directly resulted in the least secure border in my 25-year career,” adding that Biden’s executive actions “have directly resulted in an increase in illicit fentanyl coming across our southern border with Mexico and into our communities in all 50 states.”
Since Biden took office in January of 2021, “We have seen historically high numbers of people crossing the border illegally forcing more than 50 percent of patrol resources to be dedicated to administrative duties such as, but not limited to, processing, transport, hospital watch, and detention security,” Judd said. This “allows cartels to create gaps in our coverage facilitating the highest number of known ‘got-aways” in our history.
“Couple that with the more than 3.1 million people who crossed the border illegally and were released into the U.S., and we’ve added more than 4.3 million illegal border crossers to our population just since President Biden has been in office,” he added. “And at the current accelerated trajectory, we’ll add another more than 6 million illegal border crossers to our population over the next two years.”
In this environment, Judd said, criminal cartels have “become incredibly successful at bringing their high-value products into our country illegally and these circumstances have contributed to a huge increase in the flow of hard narcotics making their way into the U.S., and wreaking havoc on our communities.”
Citing a December 2022 Washington Post report, he said more than 107,000 people died from a drug overdoses in 2021 and “fentanyl was responsible for two-thirds of those deaths.”
“The amount of illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, pouring into our country across our Southern border is staggering and frankly terrifying knowing that just 2 milligrams is considered a lethal dose,” Judd said.
Citing a December 2022 U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Alert, Judd said, “The vast majority of counterfeit [opioid] pills brought into the United States are produced in Mexico, and China is supplying chemicals for the manufacturing of fentanyl in Mexico.”
Rep. Diana Harshbarger (R-Tenn.) queried Judd about the 1.2 million “get-ways,” noting these are people who didn’t want to get caught and claim asylum at the border.
She said that 53 people on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List have been apprehended at the border and that there is an increase in Chinese nationals being detained while trying to enter the country illegally at the southern border.
Harshbarger asked Judd if he thought Mexican cartels are collaborating with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in orchestrating 160,000 labs across China to make the precursor chemicals for fentanyl and in smuggling the product and people across the border.
“Yes,” Judd said.
“Absolutely, so do I,” she said, calling for the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels in Mexico to be declared terrorist organizations.
Playing a ‘Blame Game’
Democrats and several witnesses argued that the fentanyl crisis is a component of a broader opioid addiction issue but that “militarizing the border” is not a solution to a humanitarian crisis.
Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) said, “Folks are dying and families are absolutely being torn apart” by fentanyl, “and yes, it is leading to an increase in crime” in many areas across the country.
Addressing the opioid addiction crisis “should not be a partisan issue,” she said, adding that she “sincerely hopes that we could come together” on the matter but that “even the name of the hearing, ‘Joe Biden’s border crisis’ is political.”
Craig said that according to the CBP and Border patrol, 97 percent of the fentanyl seized since in 2021 was at the large commercial border crossing. Only 0.2 percent of illegal immigrants detained at the border were found to be smuggling any types of drugs, she said.
“Ninety-seven percent is coming across at legal ports of entry,” not the expanses managed by the Border Patrol, she said. So the questions should be, “what resources can we give, what more in technology, what more in officers” are needed in better “stopping illicit fentanyl from coming across the border at legal ports of entry?”
Instead, Craig said rather than searching for “real policy solutions,” Republicans are going for “political point-scoring.”
“We have a real problem in America and this does nothing for our constituents to solve the problem but who we can pitch blame on for the next election,” she said.
‘Militarized Border’ No Solution
Texas Civil Rights Project President Rochelle M. Garza in her witness testimony said her goal was “two-fold.”
“First … the public health crisis related to fentanyl and the humanitarian crisis at the border are two separate issues that should not be conflated,” Garza said. “Second, I want to share how the current approach of heavy-handed policies, that prioritize military force as the only solution, has not and will not help address either crisis.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has no intention to help solve the border crisis or reduce deaths from fentanyl, Garza said, when he says “secure the border.”
As Rio Grande Valley residents know, “securing the border” means “building an expensive, divisive, and unnecessary border wall in our community, sending the military and state troopers to flood our small towns, and luring people awaiting the resolution of their immigration cases into buses only to dramatically drop them off at the homes of his political opponents.”
Using fentanyl deaths and the opioid addition crisis as a distraction to score political points is wrong, she said.
“The vast majority of fentanyl seized at the border is intercepted at either U.S. ports of entry or through U.S. mail, with most smugglers being U.S. citizens,” she said. “We must call out the attempt to conflate fentanyl with migrants for what it is—a cheap political trick to use a serious public health crisis as justification to waste public resources on the same ineffective border policies they have been pushing in communities like mine for years.”
Military on Border A Solution
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) was among Republicans who took offense at claims that the border and fentanyl crises are separate issues being merged as “a cheap political trick.”
The field hearing is being staged near the border “because fentanyl comes from across the border. That is why we are here—it comes from across the southern border.” He accused Democrats of “quibbling how much of it comes thorough points of entry or between points of entry.”
The fentanyl explosion is “indeed related to the migration crisis because they have a common actor, Mexican drug cartels,” Crenshaw said, noting there is a documented, organized pattern where immigrant surges “tie up hundreds of” agents and they become “babysitters and bus drivers.”
Cartels “use that opportunity to run drugs through places they cannot watch,” Crenshaw said. “This is not partisan comment to make.”
If the fentanyl issue is different from other drug issues, it is because it is not entirely related to addiction but is “a poisoning problem” with people not realizing that the drug they are taking for pain relief is not what they thought it was.
“This is a different problem” and merits a different solution, he said, vowing to introduce legislation to allow “the military to go after” Mexican drug cartels “and the Mexican officials who help them.”