The border is even worse than you think

by Byron York, Chief Political Correspondent
April 11, 2021 09:46 PM

MISSION, Texas — Anyone paying attention to the news knows the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border is terrible. Anyone who actually visits the border discovers it is worse than that.

Here is what is most striking about the government's response to the unprecedented surge of illegal border crossers: It is entirely improvised. Jury-rigged. Thrown together in a scramble to accommodate thousands of migrants who were not coming just months ago. And the reason it is being improvised is that during his first days in office,
President Joe Biden blew up the foundation of the government's handling of migrants. With a series of executive actions, Biden threw out key policies with nothing ready to replace them. And he did it using rhetoric that invited migrants to rush to the border — more than 172,000 in March alone, including nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children.

Now the government's leading agencies, Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, are desperately trying to put together a new system to deal with the damage Biden's hurried and irresponsible acts have done. Under administration orders, they are no longer really trying to prevent people from entering the U.S. illegally. Rather, they are attempting to humanely house and feed the thousands prior to releasing them into the country. The border's guardians are overwhelmed and increasingly giving way to bureaucratic pressure to let most people in.

There is no better example of what is going on than the situation under the Anzalduas International Bridge that connects Mexico to the United States in Mission, Texas. It is about a mile walk through woods and a dirt road from the Rio Grande. U.S. officials have set up a temporary processing center for migrants whose smugglers have let them off on the riverbank in the dead of night and who have trudged to the bridge, guided at first by little signs with arrows, and then by the weird glow of huge temporary lights set up under the bridge. When they arrive, they get in line inside plastic fencing that guides them to a table where they give U.S. officials their rudimentary information and then to benches where they will sit through the night waiting for a bus to take them to the dangerously overcrowded U.S. detention center in Donna, Texas.

At about 11 p.m. on a recent evening, a group of ten Republican members of the House visited the bridge. (It was an all-GOP group; Democrats, apparently with little curiosity about what is going on, are staying away in droves.) The lawmakers arrived in a couple of mini-buses and got out, at first trying to figure out what they were seeing. As it began to sink in, they were stunned by what was happening. The migrants, dirty and exhausted, were sitting in row after row. Almost all were silent. The "facility" was mostly benches, a line of porta-potties, some basic supplies, and a trailer with the sign MOBILE DENTAL UNIT.

Rep. Devin Nunes, who understands a little Spanish, walked over to speak to one group — two adult men, one woman, and two children. It was a husband and a wife, their children, and another relative, Nunes told the other lawmakers. They had come from Honduras. It took them 40 days.

"It's heartbreaking, to be honest," said Rep. Ann Wagner, who was standing nearby. "As a mother and a grandmother, to see this many children, to see this many people walking out of the brush who have just crossed a river. This is a horrible situation."

"Border Patrol is handling it as best they can, but they are overwhelmed by what the traffickers are doing," said Rep. Michael McCaul. "They can barely process it." As McCaul spoke, a large bus arrived to take a load of people to Donna.

When Wagner referred to "people walking out of the brush" — that was exactly what was happening. After a while under the bridge, the lawmakers got back in the mini-buses and headed down a dirt road toward the river. As the buses slowly moved, one could faintly see groups of people emerging from the darkness, walking on the side of the road toward the bridge. Most groups were four to six people, and in most groups at least one person was carrying a small child.

They had all just crossed the border illegally. No one, not from the U.S. government or anywhere else, tried to stop them. The goal was just to make it to the bridge and start the process of moving into the U.S.

The next morning, the lawmakers went to the Donna center. (The delegation leader, Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Republican whip, had invited me to travel to Texas to cover the visit, but Border Patrol officials would not let me go to the Donna facility.) When they came out, the House members were more disturbed than they had been the night before.

"It's far worse than I thought it would be, and I thought it would be pretty bad," said Nunes. "Just the sheer volume of people that are in that facility is astounding." Nunes noted that somewhere in the crowd were the people he had spoken to the night before, now heading toward who knows how many days in the detention center.

"You're in a pod of children that is supposed to hold 60 that has 350 in it, head-to-toe, in space blankets," said Rep. French Hill. "It was sad and tragic to see that many children jammed together in holding pens."

"One of the first people we encountered was a young girl, maybe no more than ten years old, who was crying," said Scalise. "We asked her, 'Why are you crying?' and she said, 'Because I don't want to be here.'"

The Republicans pointed to several things Biden has done to create the current crisis. First, he did away with President Donald Trump's Remain in Mexico policy, which required asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico, not in the U.S., while their asylum claims were adjudicated. Second, Biden ended Trump's asylum agreements with the Northern Triangle countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, to steer would-be asylum-seekers from those nations into safe countries other than the U.S. Third, Biden gutted Trump's use of Title 42, the government's authority to expel most migrants for the purpose of controlling the spread of COVID. Biden did not throw Title 42 away altogether but is by some accounts now letting most would-be migrants stay rather than be turned away because of the pandemic.

The surge, Scalise said, "was created when President Biden got rid of things like the Remain in Mexico policy. He could put that back in place tomorrow and stop this surge of illegals coming over."

In addition, Biden came into office promising to end all deportations for the first 100 days of his presidency. With very few exceptions, he has done just that. Finally, Biden stopped construction of the Trump border wall. All of these moves opened the door to would-be illegal crossers and also sent the message to thousands of people in the Northern Triangle and elsewhere: Come now, and you can stay.

After they visited the Donna facility, the Republican group headed to a boat ramp on the Rio Grande to check out river patrols run by the Texas State Department of Public Safety. Throughout the visit, state law enforcement had been part of the officials briefing the lawmakers. They are part of Operation Lone Star, a program that Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott started in March. The idea was to have state law enforcement fill in the gaps created by all the Border Patrol agents who are having to care for migrants. On April 1, Abbott announced that state agents in Operation Lone Star had made 598 criminal arrests, referred over 16,000 illegal border crossers to federal officials, and seized 14 pounds of cocaine, as well as arrested nine gang members.

The agents took lawmakers for a river tour in the boats. They were fast; 34-foot Yellowfins each outfitted with three 350 horsepower Mercury outboard engines. The state had mounted 7.62 mm machine guns on each side. The ride with members of Congress was all for show, of course, and Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz got a lot of internet mockery when he took a similar ride in March. "You're in a border patrol boat armed with machine guns," Beto O'Rourke, the perennial Texas Democratic candidate, said to Cruz. "The only threat you face is unarmed children and families who are seeking asylum (as well as the occasional heckler)."

Indeed, the Republicans got a few hecklers of their own. As the boats passed a Mexican park, a couple of men standing at a picnic table started yelling what sounded like insults. A woman with them pulled off her shirt and flashed the lawmakers in an apparent effort to make a statement no one understood. Perhaps she was trying to articulate some sort of policy difference.

As showy as it was, the boat ride made a serious point. Somebody needs to protect the border while the Border Patrol is busy taking care of migrant children. The fact is, the Border Patrol is clearly miscast in the new Biden border operation. One can tell talking to them that in their heart of hearts, what they really want to do is catch bad guys. The same is true for the state troopers. At one briefing, they showed videos of troopers in hot pursuit of smugglers who were trying to bring drugs into the country. It was dangerous, exciting, and terrifying work — precisely the opposite of processing exhausted migrants who walk up to a facility and ask to stay in this country. What Operation Lone Star is trying to do is keep up the traditional work of protecting the border, even if the President of the United States doesn't really want to do it.

After the ride, the lawmakers held a brief news conference. Their statements were more political than they had been in private briefings when they mostly stayed away from politics and sought information from the experts. But at the news conference, they made a strong case that the highest levels of the Biden administration, that is, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, need to address the border situation publicly and personally. Harris has been put in charge of at least some aspects of the border issue and hasn't even bothered to visit the border to see the problem for herself.

"What I saw on this trip was chaos and disorder," said Rep. Nicole Malliotakis. "What the Biden administration does not want you to know is simply that they have handed over the borders of our country to the cartels and smugglers."

Most Democrats are playing along with the administration — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually said recently that, "We're on a good path at the border." Only a few Democrats seem disturbed by what is going on. "Henry's getting to a boiling point, and there a couple of others," Scalise told me, referring to Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, who has led his party in speaking out on Biden's border mess. "This is something that you can't defend," Scalise continued, "so they [Democrats] can only hope that they can keep everybody quiet."

After the news conference, the Republicans headed toward the airport and flights back to their districts. At the gates were small groups of migrants who, after having made it through the Anzalduas International Bridge processing center, and then the Donna facility, had now been given airline tickets by the U.S. government and were heading to new lives in various cities and towns around the country. Each group carried a manila envelope with travel information and the text of a few statements in English they could present to gate agents and flight attendants to help them get on their planes.

And then the congressional trip was over. The GOP lawmakers know they have no power in Nancy Pelosi's House to address the border problem. And they can't, by themselves, force the Biden administration to do anything. All they can do, a number of them said, is "raise awareness" of the worsening situation on the border. And that's what they're doing. Let Democrats dismiss it all as politics. But the fact is, awareness does need to be raised.