U.S. House Judiciary’s debut hearing on the border centers on blame for fentanyl crisis
Brandon Dunn, co-founder of Forever 15 Project, testifies in front of an urn containing the ashes of his son Noah, who died from a fentanyl overdose, during a hearing on U.S. southern border security on Feb. 1, 2023 in Washington, DC. This is the first in a series of hearings called by Republicans to examine the Biden administration’s handling of border security and migration along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans on the Judiciary Committee blamed the Biden administration for fentanyl drug smuggling at the U.S.-Mexico border during a Wednesday hearing.
Chair Jim Jordan of Ohio also blamed U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for the number of migrants at the border, and said there are already hundreds of fentanyl-related deaths this year.
Democrats on the committee pushed back on the rhetoric from their Republican colleagues, arguing that most fentanyl is seized through U.S. Customs and Border Protection at ports of entry through screenings, and is not brought by migrants who are fleeing violence or economic hardship. Democrats instead advocated for bipartisan immigration reform.
Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that is one of the leading causes of overdose deaths in the U.S., increasing in recent years. In 2014, about 14% of opioid deaths were related to fentanyl, and in 2017, nearly 60% of deaths were related to fentanyl, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
It’s also not the drug that is most commonly seized at ports of entry. For example, in CBP fiscal year 2022, more than 70,000 pounds of cocaine were seized and more than 175,000 pounds of methamphetamine were seized, compared to nearly 15,000 pounds of fentanyl, CBP statistics show.
The top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, said that most drugs are seized at ports of entry, and not from individual migrants.
“The evidence does not show that asylum seekers are bringing drugs to our shores,” Nadler said.
This is the first of many hearings that House Republicans plan to hold relating to immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. GOP lawmakers have also already started to lay the groundwork for impeaching Mayorkas.
In January, when Republicans won control of the House, they introduced a resolution impeaching Mayorkas “for high crimes and misdemeanors.” There are currently 39 Republican co-sponsors. The House Oversight and Accountability Committee is set to hold its own hearing on immigration on Feb. 7.
Nadler, defending the Biden administration policy, said while many migrants seeking asylum have come to the border, the White House has continued to keep in place a controversial Title 42 policy since 2020 that has expelled more than 2 million migrants from entering the country and claiming asylum.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, an agency within the Department of Justice, seized more than 379 million deadly doses of fentanyl last year. According to the DEA, most of the fentanyl was mass-produced in labs in Mexico, with chemicals largely sourced from China.
Jordan introduced one of the witnesses, Brandon Dunn, whose 15-year-old son, Noah, died of a fentanyl overdose. Dunn now runs an organization, the Forever 15 Project, to spread awareness of the fentanyl overdose crisis.
Dunn, who lives in Texas, said he is aware that every year CBP has record-setting fentanyl captures, but asked lawmakers, how “many pounds of fentanyl are coming across the thousands of miles of sparsely policed or monitored southern border?”
Reps. Chip Roy of Texas and Andy Biggs of Arizona, among other Republicans, inaccurately stated the Biden administration had an “open border” policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, and inaccurately claimed that the administration was not enforcing the border.
Title 42 has been in place throughout Biden’s tenure, leading to migrant expulsions. Democrats and immigration advocacy groups have criticized the Biden administration’s continued use of Title 42, calling the policy cruel and inhumane, and a violation of U.S. law that allows for a non-citizen to claim asylum. The Supreme Court is set to decide this year whether to strike down Title 42.
One of the Judiciary witnesses, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, said the Biden administration was not properly addressing the border and said that Vice President Kamala Harris, who was tapped by President Joe Biden to address border issues, has not done a sufficient job.
According to the Arizona Mirror, Dannels has known ties to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which is labeled as an anti-government extremist organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic extremism. Arizona has become ground zero for an extremist, anti-government sheriff movement, the Mirror has reported.
One of the witnesses, Ricardo Samaniego, a county judge in El Paso, detailed to lawmakers how his county established a Migrant Support Services Center to help connect migrants with relatives and sponsors and provide safe passage for those migrants to reach their sponsors.
“No migrant is placed on a bus and shipped to another city without coordination and a sponsor waiting at the receiving city,” he said in his opening statement.
He said through this process, migrants are processed quickly, and he pushed back on the narrative that El Paso was overwhelmed with migrants and that there was no orderly process.
“There is no open border,” Samaniego said. “There is no invasion, nor are there hordes of undocumented immigrants committing crimes against citizens or causing havoc in our community.”
Samaniego said that narrative used to describe migrants is false and perpetuates violence. His community experienced a hate crime in 2019 when a white supremacist targeted a Walmart, killing 23 people and wounding 23 others because he believed a white nationalist and anti-immigration manifesto, and specifically targeted Latinos.
Rep. Lance Gooden, a Texas Republican, took issue with Samaniego’s statement, and said that “you’ve called several of us racists,” and also took issue with several Catholic charities that advocate for immigrants.
“Migrants are absolutely invading this country,” Gooden said.
Samaniego did not call any of the Republicans on the committee racist, or call out any particularly party. He said false narratives that argue numerous migrants are “invading” the country are racist and can lead to violence.
“What I said is using those narratives, creates more racism in a community,” Samaniego said.
More criticism of Mayorkas
Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a New Jersey Republican, said that no Republican on the committee was anti-immigration and that was not the purpose of the hearing.
He said that the issues at the U.S.-Mexico border need to be looked at because Mayorkas cannot be trusted and is not upfront about what is happening.
“The guy’s a liar,” he said about Mayorkas. “When he tells me he’s going to look at something, he doesn’t. When he tells you he’s going to do something, he doesn’t.”
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said Republicans on the committee have the radical plan to close off asylum to anyone.
“What I find particularly pernicious is the attempt to conflate the issues of migrants seeking legal asylum through our legal processes with the very real scourge of fentanyl trafficking,” she said.
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