PHARR, Texas (Border Report) — The U.S. Border Patrol chief testified before a congressional hearing held Wednesday on the South Texas border that the agency does not have operational control of the Southwest border against Mexican cartels that are bringing in drugs and smuggling immigrants.

During the three-and-a-half-hour House Homeland Security Committee hearing, it was also learned that criminal organizations are flying thousands of drones over the border from Mexico into South Texas. Lawmakers said they were told that a dangerous “explosive device” was found earlier this year by law enforcement on the border in the region, but the Border Patrol chief downplayed that later on social media.

Wednesday’s hearing was the second field hearing to be held in the Rio Grande Valley in a month. It was the seventh border-related congressional hearing since Republicans took control of the House in January.

And while many Republican lawmakers repeated rhetoric blaming the Biden administration’s handling of the Southwest border — including the recent surge of 1,200 migrants on an international bridge leading to El Paso — the lengthy hearing was mostly civil, voices were not raised, finger-pointing was minimal.

This contrasts the Feb. 15 border field hearing — held in Weslaco by Republican and Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce — that focused on fentanyl and illegal drugs coming from Mexico. Lawmakers sparred over whether immigration and drug trafficking should be lumped together or addressed separately.

Wednesday’s hearing expanded questions about Homeland Security’s tactical operations, Border Patrol staffing, field devices and Mexican cartel activities. Witnesses included:

  • U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz
  • Steven Cagen, assistant director for the Countering Transnational Organized Crime unit that is part of Homeland Security Investigations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw
  • Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe
  • Chris Cabrera, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council

Only Republicans attended Wednesday’s hearing — which was repeated by several GOP committee members who lamented that no Democrats from this powerful committee came to the border for the event.

Thirteen Republicans attended the hearing, and there were five “empty seats” as Committee Chairman Mark Green, of Tennessee, referenced to the missing Democratic committee members.

Also missing was Republican committee member Tony Gonzales, who represents the West Texas border region. The Texas GOP censured Gonzales earlier this month for breaking with the party on several issues, including on a border security proposal.

Throughout the hearing, committee members praised Ortiz’s “candor” and said his testimony was refreshing and enlightening.

U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz testified before a congressional field hearing in Pharr, Texas, on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“We have had ground-breaking testimony by Chief Ortiz. He said we do not have operational control of the Southwest border,” U.S. Rep. August Pfluger, a Republican from San Angelo, Texas, said. “And how sad it is our colleagues from the other side of the aisle are not here in McAllen, in the Rio Grande Valley, to hear this?”

“Shame on them for not coming and engaging in this important discussion on protecting our border,” U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, said.

Greene, an outspoken opponent of President Joe Biden, has filed legislation to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. 

The hearing on Wednesday was titled: “Failure By Design: Examining Secretary Mayorkas’ Border Crisis.“

Homeland Security Committee Chairman U.S. Rep. Mark Green, top right, and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, bottom middle, drove immigration-related questions during the March 15 field hearing held in Pharr, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Chairman Green said they were holding the hearing on the border “to break out of the bubble in Washington and come down here to the border to see it for ourselves.”

He began by asking Ortiz: “Does DHS have operational control of our entire border?”

“No sir,” Ortiz answered.

His answer was in stark contrast to a clip that Green played of Mayorkas telling Congress that the agency was in control of the border.

Ortiz said five of the nine Border Patrol sectors on the Southwest border do not have sufficient technology and personnel to handle the influx of undocumented immigrants, unaccompanied minors and drugs that are crossing from Mexico that “have caused a considerable strain on our resources.”

“To me, that’s the cartels controlling the southern border,” Green said. He also referenced the estimated 1.3 million “got-aways” — migrants who crossed the Southwest border and went undetected by law enforcement in Fiscal Year 2022.

Questionable device found

Greene asked Ortiz if he was aware of an “explosive device” found in the Rio Grande Valley border.

Ortiz answered that he is privy to information that is confidential and cannot be openly discussed.

Greene responded: “I’m not going to be confidential.” She said the device was found Jan. 17.

During a break in panels, U.S. Rep. Dale Strong, a freshman Republican from Alabama, told Border Report the device “was brought up in a meeting while we’ve been here in McAllen, Texas, and not only were we briefed on it. But we saw it.”

He said it was an “improvised explosive device” that “was same as a bomb.”

But Ortiz tweeted after the hearing that it wasn’t a threat.

“It was alleged that Agents found an explosive device near the border. During a Jan. briefing, leadership was notified that Agents found a duct-taped ball filled with sand that wasn’t deemed a threat to agents/public,” Ortiz tweeted.

Drones overhead

U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, a freshman Republican who represents this South Texas border district, was invited to participate in the hearing and also questioned witnesses, although she is not on the Homeland Security Committee.

She said over 35,000 drones have been flown over the border from Mexico into the Rio Grande Valley, And she said of those 10,000 were intercepted.

“Cartels that are watching our agents, watching our American communities and leading illegal immigrants through our Southwest border,” De La Cruz said.

She said the Border Patrol’s RGV Sector has 31 drones assigned to the sector, but only 18 currently are operational. “The others are down due to maintenance and other issues,” she said.

Ortiz would not discuss operational details citing security. But he told the committee that he thought it was wasteful of the federal government to take down sections of the border wall that were put up under the Trump administration. He also said that policies, like remain-in-Mexico (formally called the Migrant Protections Protocol program) and other Trump-era policies would help his agents in the field today.

“You can call it Migrant Protection Protocols — ‘Remain in Mexico’ — safe third country policy — all of the tools the Border Patrol has at its disposal are going to help us do a better job to secure this border,” Ortiz testified.

After his testimony, a DHS spokesperson told Border Report: “Today’s hearing highlights the vital work the Department of Homeland Security does every day to enforce our laws, secure our border, and combat cartels and smugglers. As Chief Ortiz and Assistant Director Cagen testified, new programs, technology, and investments are making a real impact. Despite inheriting a dismantled immigration system and facing unprecedented migration that is affecting nations throughout the Western Hemisphere, this administration has surged resources to the border, reducing the number of encounters between ports of entry, disrupting more smuggling operations than ever before, and interdicting more drugs in the last two years than had been stopped in the five years prior.”

A DHS official said new border enforcement measures are making an impact and highlighted February’s overall encounter numbers that are nearly even with January — around 128,900 — marking the second month in a row as the lowest month of Border Patrol encounters since February 2021.

More agents needed

Ortiz testified that his agency needs 22,000 Border Patrol agents, but currently has 19,016 agents.

Strong asked Ortiz if sending the U.S. military to the border would be helpful. Ortiz responded that his agents are the best trained to handle those who illegally cross the border from Mexico. But he says he needs help retaining and recruiting agents.

Cabrera testified that as soon as agents reach retirement or gain tenure they leave the agency for higher-paying jobs at other agencies, and to work in locations that are more metropolitan.

Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe, middle, testified March 15 in the congressional field hearing held at South Texas College in Pharr, Texas. DPS Director Steve McCraw, left, and Chris Cabrera of the National Border Patrol Council also testified. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Coe, the sheriff of Kinney County, Texas, said he has personally driven apprehended migrants to the nearest port of entry and forced them to walk back to Mexico because federal authorities were too overwhelmed to get them off the hands of his deputies.

He says he has a staff of 12 deputies — six are full-time — to patrol his South Texas county of 3,200 that share 16 miles of border with Mexico. He says the population has dropped from nearly 4,000 a decade ago and that game hunting is their most lucrative venture. But he said hunters are fearful of migrants and smugglers attacking them, and he said so many people coming across are scaring away the big game.

He says 160 to 180 people per night try to cross into Kinney County.

“I have six full-time deputies and we spend the majority of our day processing smugglers and illegal immigrants because the federal government cannot,” Coe testified.

Lawmakers said they took a river tour with DPS on Tuesday, and met with other law enforcement officials.

Members of LUPE protest March 15, 2023, outside a congressional field hearing held on the border in Pharr, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Prior to the hearing, members of the civil-rights nonprofit La Union Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) protested in front of South Texas College’s Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence, where the hearing was held.

“We are here with community members and other organizations to allow the community to know and law enforcement and the legislators that we will not stand for politicians that don’t understand what it means to live in the border to come and enforce racist and white supremacist laws that not only hurt our border but hard-working border families,” Alexis Elicerio, 25, a recent college graduate who joined in the protest told Border Report.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat who used to represent this area, but now represents Texas’ 34th Congressional District, farther east along the Gulf Coast, told Border Report, “If they want to learn what’s happening on the border they should schedule visits with our federal judges who hear border cases every day and can give them actual facts of what’s happening on the border. They didn’t do that because they are not here to learn from the actual people who know.”