Lawmakers flock to border as more migrants arrive

Congressional delegations have been meeting with Border Patrol agents and visiting migrant camps

The border wall stretches along the U.S.-Mexico border near Columbus, N.M.   (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The border wall stretches along the U.S.-Mexico border near Columbus, N.M. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 15, 2021 at 6:15am

It’s not an ordinary sight — a group of sitting Republican senators, including Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, dressed in tactical gear, floating along the Rio Grande in a boat armed with machine guns.

But lately, scenes of lawmakers at the southern border have become a common occurrence, as a steady stream of them venture to the region to speak about immigration, meet with Border Patrol agents and view migrant camps.

“So it’s past midnight. I’m standing on the shore of the Rio Grande, the water’s right behind me,” Cruz, R-Texas, says in a nighttime video. “I’m down at the Texas border along with 18 senators. We made the trip to see the crisis that is playing out.”

Trucks and cars cross over the Rio Grande and U.S.-Mexico border on the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso, Texas on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Like Cruz, many lawmakers, including Democrats, have used their visits to shoot personal videos, updating constituents and social media followers about what they saw.

The Biden administration has taken heat during these trips from both sides of the aisle — but from Republicans in particular.

Historically high numbers of migrants, particularly minors without their parents, have been arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks, forcing the Biden administration to hastily set up emergency intake sites to manage thousands of unaccompanied children.

In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents encountered a migrant at the border more than 172,000 times, including 18,890 unaccompanied minors, according to data released by Customs and Border Protection — the highest number of encounters in a single month in at least a decade.

Republican critics of the new Democratic White House have highlighted images of cramped border facilities, saying President Joe Biden has given migrants an incentive to come because of his departure from the hard-line immigration policies of his predecessor.

“This has been the most disturbing field tour that I've ever taken,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee immigration panel, said at an April 7 news conference. “Yesterday we watched literally hundreds of illegal migrants crossing the border and turning themselves in to the Border Patrol.”

‘Made for TV’

The trips can be substantive, giving lawmakers and congressional staffers from other parts of the country a chance to visit the region and speak to local officials on the ground.

Brandon Judd, president of the Border Patrol agents’ union, said while lawmakers do politicize border issues, the congressional delegation, or codel, trips can serve to bring more attention to the area.

House Oversight and Reform Committee GOP members, from left, Reps. Scott Franklin, R-Fla., Ralph Norman, R-S.C., Fred Keller, R-Pa., Glenn Grothman , R-Wis., ranking member James Comer, R-Ky., and Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., pose for a group photo during their tour of the border wall on the Johnson Ranch near Columbus, N.M., on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“The codel trips are extremely important because it shines a light on the issue, and once you have that, you have a better chance of getting it done,” he said.

But the trips are also opportunities for lawmakers to highlight political talking points, said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

“I definitely think that the purpose of the visits is more political theater than it is not, especially when it comes to immigration and the southern border, which is just, kind of made for TV,” she said.

“There is so much going on at the southern border, it is such a dramatic moment, and there are so many dramatic visuals that one can use,” Pierce added.

For Republicans, the border wall provides one such visual.

Immediately after taking office, Biden halted construction on the wall, one of former President Donald Trump’s signature issues. Stopping the build in its tracks, however, has left portions of the wall unfinished, and funds left over.

The White House has proposed canceling remaining border wall funds in a preview of its budget request for fiscal 2022, released earlier this month.

Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., stands among piles of unused border fencing during the tour of the border wall on the Johnson Ranch near Columbus, N.M., on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

During a trip Monday by House Oversight Committee Republicans to a New Mexico ranch, where they were joined by a CQ Roll Call photographer, Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., pointed out gaps left in the wall and construction materials left on the property.

“It’s something that the American people need to see. And unless you come out here and see it firsthand, you can’t really understand what's being wasted and how much we spent on it,” she said.

Images of a barrier could also be seen from the background of a Texas news conference in March led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Speaking to reporters back in Washington that week, McCarthy, R-Calif., recounted asking border agents about the incomplete wall in El Paso.

“They built 133 miles, 17 short. I asked them when did they stop? Midnight January 20th. Has it created a problem? Yes,” McCarthy said.

While Republicans generally point to the Biden administration’s efforts to unwind some of Trump’s immigration restrictions, Democrats often blame the current influx on pent-up demand created by the Trump administration’s policies limiting asylum access. Both sides have accused the other of hypocrisy.

GOP members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and ranchers hold a roundtable discussion on border security at the Columbus Community Center in Columbus, N.M., on Monday. ( Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“When I call this a crisis, I’m not blaming the crisis on the present administration of President Biden, the former administration of President Trump,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., advocating for bipartisanship during his recent border trip with fellow moderate Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas. “This has been a human crisis for a long, long time.”

Other Democrats have pushed back against claims the border is in “crisis.” They also make a point of speaking to humanitarian advocates during delegation trips.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat whose district includes El Paso, has been particularly critical of congressional delegation visits that fail to include discussions with refugee advocates or migrants themselves.

In late March, Escobar hosted a delegation of lawmakers to her district that included one Republican, Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Ukraine. Escobar also recently invited Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to El Paso and arranged discussions with local officials, immigration lawyers and humanitarian advocates.

“It's a very holistic perspective, unlike what my Republican colleagues usually do, which is they parachute in, put on camouflage, act like they are in a war zone, and they don't normally talk to the humanitarian folks, the advocates or the migrants,” Escobar said March 26 on a call with reporters.

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