WESLACO, Texas (Border Report) — A cadre of House Republicans came to the South Texas border on Wednesday and held the first field hearing of the new Congress on what they dubbed “President Biden’s Border Crisis is a Public Health Crisis.”

Eighteen members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, including three Democrats, took part in the joint field hearing of the Health Subcommittee, and the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, which was at times contentious and starkly divided by political lines.

The nearly three-hour hearing primarily focused on fentanyl coming over the Mexican border into the United States. Republican members repeatedly tied the illegal drugs to illegal immigration, which drew the ire of the three Democrats, a civil rights advocate who testified, and the local congressman who was not invited.

This was the third hearing on border security that the new Republican-led Congress has held in the past three weeks. Last week, the House Committee on Oversight held a hearing on border security and two Border Patrol sector chiefs, including the leader of the Rio Grande Valley, testified in Washington.

On Thursday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is headed to Arizona to tour the border along with other Republicans.

During Wednesday evening’s hearing, lawmakers heard from these four witnesses:

  • Rochelle Garza, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit that offers legal and civil rights services to minorities and immigrants.
  • Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council
  • Brooks County Sheriff Urbino “Benny” Martinez
  • Stuart Archer, CEO of Oceans Healthcare, a Dallas-based behavioral health company that provides care to several states in the Southwest, including Texas and Oklahoma.

Republican Committee Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Washington, repeatedly referred to “President Biden’s open-border agenda” — a refrain heard many times by several of the Republican members.

From left, Brooks County Sheriff Urbino “Benny” Martinez, Stuart Archer, CEO of Oceans Healthcare, Rochelle Garza, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, and Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“Thank you for being here on the grounds, on the frontlines of this border crisis. We want to make sure that our future is secure and our communities are safe,” Rodgers told the members who made the trek to South Texas, as well as several who visited a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility prior to the hearing.

“It is important we convene here in Texas to shed light on the brutal situation this president has caused,” U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Virginia, chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, who was the chairman of Wednesday night’s hearing.

Many locals, however, said the hearing was not necessary.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents Texas’ 34th Congressional District, which includes Weslaco, told Border Report he wasn’t invited to the hearing.

He is not on the Energy and Commerce Committee, but said the field hearing was not necessary in the Rio Grande Valley.

“The chairwoman should have a field hearing in Spokane, Washington, in her district. Before she comes to the RGV, she needs to help her constituents figure out why they have the highest crime rate in America compared to communities of any size. A place where one’s chances of becoming a victim of either a violent of property crime is one in 19,” Gonzalez told Border Report on Wednesday.

A recent report listed Spokane as the second-to-last safest city in Washington state with a crime rate of 78 per 1,000 residents.

Just before Wednesday’s hearing, Garza, along with members of the Texas Civil Rights Project, and the nonprofit La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) held a news conference in front of the building where the hearing was held to denounce what they called “a cheap political trick.”

“We think this is a political stunt,” LUPE Executive Director Tania Chavez Camacho said in response to a question from Border Report.

Chavez Camacho was recently tapped to head the organization that got its beginnings with former civil rights leader Cesar Chavez.

“There is an issue that needs to be addressed, however, why are they doing it here in the border community?” Chavez Camacho said. “What are families in Utah (doing?) How are they addressing the fentanyl crisis? Why are we trying to blame border communities for the challenge at hand? We understand that there is a crisis but we also believe that the real solutions are not blaming immigrants for this current issue with fentanyl.”

“The attempt to conflate fentanyl with migrants is nothing more than a cheap political trick to use a public health crisis as justification to waste public resources on the same tired and ineffective border policies,” Garza said. “The politicians that visit here only do so to spread lies about the border and to use our community as a platform for their political purposes.”

In her testimony, Garza condemned the $4.2 billion that the State of Texas has spent the past two years on Operation Lone Star, a state-funded border security initiative launched by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, which includes the building of new border wall in two areas of the Rio Grande Valley.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Jan. 30 visited Los Indios, Texas, in Cameron County, and watched the building of new 30-foot-tall border wall that is being paid for by the State of Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photos)

“Meanwhile, border residents have been left to address the real crisis. And raise funds for humanitarian needs of people seeking asylum. The federal and state governments cannot continue with our current approach. We need solutions that are going to move us forward,” Garza said. “We must change course and this leadership has to come from the federal government.”

Rochelle Garza

Garza said she was invited by one of the Democratic lawmakers to testify. And she repeatedly stressed that “militarization” of the border will not help what she calls “a public health crisis” involving fentanyl overdoses.

“My goal in providing this testimony is two-fold: First, to dispel misconceptions about what are actually two separate issues: the public health crisis related to fentanyl and the humanitarian crisis at the border. 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,” Garza testified.

“We got to secure this border and stop the drugs coming across,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Louisiana, who is a pharmacist by trade and serves on the committee.

Carter was among the members who visited the CBP Central Processing Facility in McAllen earlier Wednesday, commonly called “Ursula” due to its location on Ursula Avenue. He said he learned that K-9 Border Patrol units are not trained to detect fentanyl and questioned Judd whether that was true.

Judd responded that a K-9 detected a backpack with fentanyl that was seized on the Arizona border earlier this week.

“This is a field hearing on the border because fentanyl comes across the southern border,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, raising his voice the loudest during the two-hour-long hearing. “This is not political theatre. This is not misinformation.”

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, questioned why there wasn’t testimony from a CBP officer on the amount of fentanyl seized at U.S. ports of entry.

“We know that a majority of fentanyl smuggled illegally comes through legal ports of entry, and not at illegal crossings. Instead of acknowledging these facts and take constructive action to address the opioid crisis, Republicans are using misinformation to encourage excessive incarcerations, detentions, and deportations at the border,” Veasey said.

Left, U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Virginia, and Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-California. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report

Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-California, teared up when he said his son was a recovering addict.

“For those individuals who unfortunately have found themselves addicted and cannot help themselves, we need to help them, too. There are many prongs to the solution. There are many issues that face our nation and pointing at one border is not going to get us out of our problems,” Cardenas said.

“It is connected. The immigration crisis and the fentanyl drug crisis are connected,” Crenshaw said.

“And by the way, the man who represents this district, Vicente Gonzalez, he agrees with me,” Crenshaw said. “We are working on drug legislation against the cartels.”

During the hearing, Gonzalez released a statement calling the hearing “political theatre.”

“Despite the Rio Grande Valley continuing to be one of the safest regions in the country, House Republicans continue to paint it as dangerous. The implication that my colleagues think they know better than our community — a community that is dealing firsthand with increased migration is insulting to say the least,” Gonzalez said.