Over 1.5 million migrants crossed our southern border this year — the largest spike in more than two decades. Our immigration system is on fire, and bad policies are fanning the flames.
I know this because I represent more than 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. I have visited multiple migrant facilities and heard directly from law enforcement agents on the ground. I have also taken several groups of my colleagues in Congress to our southern border. It’s imperative that lawmakers see it for themselves in order to make responsible and effective policy.
There is no doubt that we experienced a severe crisis this year. Our agents, officers and sheriffs have desperately needed help. Border communities and their leaders have also needed relief. They are on the front lines every single day, working tirelessly to stretch their limited resources well beyond their means.
Del Rio, Texas, a small border city of 35,000 people, is one of the most trafficked regions along the border.
It made headlines in September when thousands of migrants — mainly Haitians — overwhelmed the area with unprecedented speed. In just four days, arrivals surged from 2,000 to 15,000, plunging the city into total chaos. With Border Patrol facilities at capacity, the International Bridge became a makeshift camp for migrants, creating serious public health and safety concerns.
Women went into labor, people got sick, and basic hygiene standards were completely unavailable. While local officials scrambled to find food, water and basic goods, Border Patrol agents shifted their entire focus to help process the endless crowds. Security checkpoints were closed for several days, leaving our roads wide open for drug traffickers and criminals. For over a week, there was no border as crowds streamed across the river, going back and forth between the United States and Mexico as they pleased.
This event served as a wake-up call for how quickly we can lose control of our borders. But in places like Del Rio, border security is under threat every single day.
In this area alone, individuals from over 92 countries were arrested this year.1 That is far from typical, and it presents new risks for our national security. Although most travel to escape poor economic conditions, it is not uncommon for convicted criminals to be discovered among large groups of migrant caravans. How long before our open floodgates lead to another 9/11?
I don’t say this lightly. The numbers that are published reflect only what we know for certain. There is another statistic that we should be more cautious about. “Gotaway” rates are estimates of individuals that Border Patrol agents are not catching. Agents can piece this information together from clues on the field, such as sensors that are tripped or footprints that are found. These gotaway rates have been unusually high, and they emphasize that we have no means of knowing or tracking who else is slipping past our detection.2
There are some who say these migrant surges are seasonal and that flows slow down when temperatures start to rise. While that may have been true before, this past summer we saw the exact opposite, with July resulting in more than 212,000 encounters at the southern border. This is a record-breaking total, and it is representative of a man-made crisis.
Were it not for law enforcement’s tireless efforts, our borders would be broken beyond repair — a complete safe haven for cartels, terrorist organizations and illegal activity. That said, these brave men and women are faced with limited resources, stretched further by a crisis that has led them to make some serious trade-offs. Any time there is a surge in migration, Border Patrol agents are taken off the front lines to assist with intake and processing. This detracts from their ability to keep a physical presence in the field and creates gaps for drug and human smugglers to find a way in.
For that matter, stash houses have multiplied along the border. These are small “checkpoints” where smugglers hide migrants while they wait for their next leg of transportation on their journey to the interior. They are generally cramped, unsafe and operated by a criminal network. In Del Rio alone, over 2,000 smuggling cases were reported this year, many of which put the lives of those being trafficked in considerable danger. In the summer heat, agents have discovered crowds of people in the backs of U-Haul trucks or riding on freight trains. Some do not make it out alive, and migrant deaths have reached a new record this year.
Drugs have also proliferated, with a concerning spike in fentanyl seizures over the last three years. On the edge of an opioid crisis, these trends are deeply troubling. All it takes is two pounds of fentanyl to kill 500,000 people.3 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has seized thousands of pounds this year alone. With agents focused intensely on the processing of migrants, we can only wonder how much more is making its way in undetected.
Along the border, ranchers and farmers have also been hit hard. They are another casualty of this crisis; their properties are trespassed, often damaged, as migrants travel across the region. It seems like every morning they find new evidence of a destroyed fence, a broken gate or a vandalized barn shed. Break-ins are also common, forcing landowners to be on constant watch. In August, Border Patrol agents from Uvalde, Texas, came across five undocumented migrants wearing camouflage, attempting to evade arrest. They carried clothing, binoculars and knives stolen from a nearby ranch house.4 These are everyday occurrences, and border communities are fed up.
Many border cities and towns are already dealing with a pandemic that has been relentless on public health and local economies. Now, with the added weight of bad immigration policies, their limited resources have reached a new breaking point. In February of this year, President Joe Biden resumed the practice of “catch and release.” As a result of this practice, thousands of migrants have been discharged from Border Patrol custody, allowed to travel across the country and remain in the United States while their asylum petitions wind through the courts. Many test positive for COVID-19.5 Community transmission is a very real danger that has many residents concerned.
On the other side of the coin, this is also a humanitarian emergency. Never before have we experienced so many crossings by unaccompanied children — well over 100,000 since January of this year. These vulnerable minors travel for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles without their parents. They are guided by human smugglers who are paid thousands of dollars to lead them across our border. On their journeys, they are exposed to unimaginable dangers, crossing deserts, risking abuse, or being abandoned — all because they’re incentivized by our broken immigration policies.
Their struggles are unbelievable. In May of this year, on Mother’s Day weekend, five young girls were deserted on a ranch in my district. They ranged from 11 months to 7 years in age — practically babies — and had been left for dead by human traffickers after being separated from their parents in Mexico. Imagine you are 7 years old, and you find yourself in a foreign country, in the middle of nowhere, unable to speak the language. You don’t have food or water, and it is suddenly your responsibility to make sure your sister and baby cousins survive. Had these helpless girls not been rescued by the property’s owners, they could have died in that Texas heat.
These children have been put through hell and back. In early February, when thousands of these minors began streaming in, they were kept in Border Patrol detention centers, often far longer than is permitted by U.S. law, which mandates that children must be transferred to Health and Human Services shelters in less than 72 hours. In response, the administration rushed to activate emergency children’s shelters across the country, converting military bases, convention centers and oil camp facilities into overnight care centers. At these sites, claims of abuse and neglect are common, mental health services are lacking, and COVID-19 outbreaks happen often. Many are in my district. I have seen them up close and know firsthand how bad they can be.
These children don’t have a voice. These children aren’t represented. They are nothing more than a statistic on a paper, and that is wrong on all accounts.
At our core, we are compassionate people. My life has been the American Dream, and I want others to have that same opportunity. We can go beyond political labels to reach solutions for our nation’s most pressing problems and address our flawed border security policies.
For starters, asylum is a very unique protection. It is only granted to those who meet a certain standard of persecution. Yet, many who are crossing today are doing so for economic reasons, and that is not enough in the eyes of the law. If our immigration system worked properly, we could easily distinguish between these two migrant categories and quickly return those who do not meet the threshold to their home countries. However, inefficiencies in our immigration court system have led to a very different reality.
As it stands, our immigration courts are faced with a backlog that exceeds 1.3 million cases. This means that an asylum request takes an average of two to three years for an immigration judge to review. In the meantime, migrants are allowed to remain in the United States and free to move across the country until a final decision is made. Even if their petitions are ultimately denied, which is the outcome in the majority of cases, some do not show up for their removal proceedings and simply disappear, never to be found again. These loopholes must be addressed. If our immigration court system was adequately staffed, we could reduce our historic backlogs and expedite the entire process. That way, individuals without valid claims would be deported in a timely manner, and future non-refugees would think twice about making the long and dangerous trek to our border.
President Donald Trump worked to address these incentives with the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Through an agreement with our neighbors to the south, migrants waited on the Mexican side of border cities for the duration of their asylum hearings, not in the United States. That program allowed us to regain control of our southern border and enabled law enforcement agents to return to their national security duties. It also prevented non-qualifying asylum claims from overwhelming our immigration system.
Moving forward, we must continue working with our international partners to stem the tide of migration before it reaches our southern border. If we combine that approach with an increase to our immigration courts’ staffing levels, we can take a huge step forward in establishing an efficient system.
Any long-lasting solution must also include improvements to our border security. Many areas are still vulnerable to criminal activity, and we need to ensure that all our bases are covered. In some places, that means we could benefit from a physical structure like a wall. In others, border technology is a much more suitable option.
Take the Big Bend area in my congressional district, for instance. As one of the most remote locations in the country, this region is mostly rugged desert terrain. With 500 miles of river front, it is also the largest sector along the border. Its sheer size and harsh geography make it very difficult for agents to patrol on foot, especially in 100-degree weather. Here, an expansion of surveillance technology goes a very long way. These tools allow agents to patrol several miles of land at once, informing them when a lone migrant sends a distress signal or when drug traffickers are on the move. In today’s information age, we need to provide our agents with valuable intelligence so they can dispatch forces in the most strategic and effective manner. An expansion of this technology is something that should be agreed upon by Congress. The results speak for themselves.
That said, these tools are part of a larger system. It is only complete if we have enough agents to operate it. All along the southern border, we have seen a historic uptick in apprehensions and criminal activity, while Border Patrol continues to be severely understaffed. Thankfully, they have been assisted by local, state and national partners who have sacrificed their own missions to shore up our borders. Local law enforcement branches are able to augment Border Patrol’s work thanks to Operation Stonegarden, a grant program that provides funding to local agencies that support border security efforts.
Unfortunately, CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) face an uphill battle with “progressive” groups that are fixated on defunding their missions. If anything, we should be significantly increasing funding toward these critical agencies. A decade ago, Congress provided for a mandatory staffing floor of 21,370 Border Patrol agents. In recent years, we have been operating with 2,000 below that number. With the challenges faced at our border this year, it is time to reconsider our position here and start taking our border security seriously.
Thankfully, we have seen leaders at every level work together to fill that void. Alongside Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and two of our Democratic counterparts, I introduced the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act, which hires additional ICE and CBP staff with the mission of getting Border Patrol agents out of the processing centers and back on the front lines. It also speeds up deportations of those without legitimate asylum claims. I have also introduced legislation, the Security First Act, to allocate more funding for Operation Stonegarden in order to help local law enforcement continue to provide support to Border Patrol.
Let me be clear: I fully believe in legal immigration. The best part of the American Dream is that it doesn’t always start in America. Our country has long relied on immigrants and their many contributions to our society. I want everyone to have an opportunity to achieve the American Dream, just like I had, and like my children will have. However, there are rules that must be followed. Ignoring them creates chaos for the system and risks for those who make the life-endangering trip to get here.
Today, our border policies are failing our communities and failing the individuals making the trip for a better life. I urge Republicans and Democrats alike to address the border crisis. It needs our full attention now, and we must address it with a sense of urgency.