McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Border Patrol chief for the Rio Grande Valley Sector told a congressional committee on Tuesday that the border wall is a “tool” that her agents rely on to help to prevent migrants from illegally crossing the Southwest border.
“Barrier is just one of the many tools that agents utilize to get the job done on the border. So I think barrier is effective in certain strategic locations along the border to manage whatever may come whether it’s vehicles or people who attempt to enter through certain locations,” Gloria Chavez, Border Patrol chief patrol agent of the RGV Sector, told the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability.
Chavez testified for over four hours on Tuesday. She was joined by Tucson Sector Border Patrol Chief Patrol Agent John Modlin, who also testified about the difficulties of covering vast swaths of borderlands with limited resources.
This was the second border-related hearing to be held within a week by the new Republican-led House of Representatives. At issue are monthly increases in apprehensions of migrants crossing from Mexico, and deadly drugs, like fentanyl, that are coming across.
The hearing came just hours before President Joe Biden was slated to give the State of the Union address before Congress, during which he is expected to address the uptick in immigration and drugs on the Southwest border.
Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, a Republican from Kentucky, started the hearing by saying “conditions at the border are dangerous, chaotic and inhumane.”
Democratic Vice Chairman Jamie Raskin, of Maryland, said the Biden administration sent $7.3 billion in funding and resources to the southern border last year, which included additional money for U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the ports of entry and billions of dollars to hire more Border Patrol agents, all in an effort to help maintain “order at the border.”
Comer said there were an estimated 600,000 “got aways” or migrants who evaded apprehension in Fiscal Year 2022.
“President Biden and his administration has created the worst border crisis in history,” Comer said.
In Fiscal Year 2022, Border Patrol encountered migrants who crossed the Southwest border illegally over 2.2 million times, according to CBP. That’s up from 1.9 million in Fiscal 2021, and 646,000 in Fiscal 2020.
The El Paso Sector this week reported that during the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2023, which began in October, migrant encounters totaled 162,603 — an increase of 231% from the same time last fiscal year.
Modlin testified that his agents mostly encounter single adults who try to evade Border Patrol agents by crossing dangerous terrain into mountains and deserts. The Tucson Sector includes 18,000 square miles, and he said last year Border Patrol agents responded to over 3,500 lost or hurt migrants.
Chavez says Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas mostly come across family units from Central America who willingly give themselves up and are seeking asylum in the United States.
The RGV Sector includes 34,000 miles along the border with Mexico, including 317 coastal miles on the Gulf of Mexico.
“The RGV is identified as a major corridor by cartels and transnational criminal organizations and is exploited daily,” Chavez said.
Both chiefs said transnational criminal organizations and drug cartels control all northern routes south of the border. Chavez said all migrants must pay smugglers to get across the border.
Modlin said lately his agents have come across large groups of migrants that smugglers then split into smaller groups “who then all at the same time cross in different places and saturate our agents.”
He calls it “task saturation” and says it drains law enforcement resources on the border.
Chavez said partnerships and working with local and state governments, like a license plate reader program in South Texas, help Border Patrol agents and CBP officers to be alerted to potential border threats.
She said partnering with law enforcement agencies through the federally subsidized Operation Stonegarden helps to increase law enforcement on the border.
“Operation Stonegarden is a phenomenal program to provide assistance,” Chavez said.
Modlin said last year 700 pounds of fentanyl were seized in the Tucson Sector — “enough to kill half the population of the United States.”
Most of the drugs were seized in the field, he said.
But in South Texas, Chavez said most drugs come through ports of entry, not brought in by migrants in between ports. This includes 25 pounds of liquid fentanyl that was seized at a port in December — the largest amount to date, she said.
Raskin said that according to data, 86% of people convicted for smuggling fentanyl in 2021 were American citizens who were “on payrolls of criminal operations.”
Most of the committee comments and questions leaned hard left or hard right, depending upon their political party.
“What I find interesting is despite successes, what we’re hearing is an effort to characterize seizures as failure,” U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, D-California, said. “To me, the fact that you’re seizing these drugs is a success.”
“You should immediately take action to stop what is your immediate problems, for instance: gottaways. You ought to pick them up and put them on a plane well south of the border,” U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican from Waco, Texas, told the chiefs. “They are a threat to the security of this country.”
U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Republican whose district includes the largest section of Texas’ border, was the last to speak. He is not on the committee but was an invited guest.
“It’s long time for Congress and this administration to stop playing political games and do something,” Gonzales said.
He said he spent Christmas on the border and watched Border Patrol agents stressed from too much work, and saw a young migrant child clutching the hand of their mother in fear.
“Would more manpower and technology help to start to secure the border?” Gonzales asked.
“Yes. Manpower and technology would make a huge difference for us to secure the border,” Chavez said.