El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego appeared puzzled as he answered questions from Republican lawmakers at a congressional hearing in Washington on Wednesday.
The Texas judge traveled to the Capitol to recount the daily challenges civil society groups face providing humanitarian aid to asylum seekers on the border. He was prepared to discuss the nitty-gritty of that work and relay what he sees as the “success story” of his binational, Mexican American community.
Instead, he found himself fielding shouted questions about whether he agreed that cartel wars would soon spill across the border and plunge the nation into chaos — because after all, wasn’t that the explicit aim of the president of the United States?
The House Judiciary Committee hearing, titled “Biden’s Border Crisis — Part One,” was the first to be held by the new Republican majority. To no one’s great surprise, the six hours of testimony and partisan monologues revealed a legislative body that’s as far from passing laws that would change U.S. border enforcement and immigration policy as it’s ever been. It also affirmed the GOP’s continued commitment to a depiction of border communities under invasion, inviting extremist violence in the region and against immigrant populations nationwide.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the committee chair, set the tone. Following an hourlong procedural fight over whether to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Jordan began the hearing by outlining a central pillar of his party’s 2023 political vision: that President Joe Biden is intentionally allowing widespread lawbreaking across the border through undocumented migration and drug trafficking.
“Month after month after month, we have set records for migrants coming into the country and frankly, I think it’s intentional,” Jordan said in his opening remarks. “Under President Biden, there is no border and Americans are paying the price.”
Jordan’s Republican colleagues took the argument further as the day progressed. “Migrants are absolutely invading this country,” said Texas Rep. Lance Gooden. The new arrivals are “willing to kill,” added Rep. Troy Nehls, also from Texas. “The reality is Joe Biden has enabled the largest human and drug trafficking operation in U.S. history,” asserted Rep. Harriet Hageman of Wyoming. “This tragedy is not only manmade, it is government mandated.”
Wednesday’s hearing came as new data obtained by CBS News showed that apprehensions at the border fell by roughly 40 percent in January, amounting to the lowest totals seen since Biden took office after reaching record highs late last year. In the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, an agency spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News that average daily encounters fell from a peak of 2,150 in December to 929 in January.
Though the decline followed the administration’s reorganization of several key border and immigration policies early last month, experts cautioned that it may be too early to link the two developments. Apprehension numbers on the border often fall in the winter months after the holiday season.
Samaniego, the judge, was invited to the hearing by his fellow El Pasoan, Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar. The Republicans’ speakers included Brandon Dunn, co-founder of the “Forever 15 Project,” established in memory of his 15-year-old son, Noah, who died of a fentanyl overdose last year. While Dunn gave lawmakers a heart-wrenching account of his family’s tragedy, it was the Republicans’ second speaker, Arizona Sheriff Mark Dannels, of Cochise County, who commanded most of the party members’ attention.
Though both Samaniego and Dannels came to Washington as local elected officials offering firsthand accounts of conditions on the border, the pictures they painted were a study in contrasts.
Samaniego began with an attempt to dispel three myths: that the border is “open” in El Paso, that the city is experiencing an “invasion,” and that “humanitarianism and security” are a “binary choice.” The judge’s comments were not radical. They were hardly even political. Samaniego did not call for defunding the Department of Homeland Security — something Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, one of Wednesday’s most fiery and poorly informed speakers, had done. In fact, Samaniego repeatedly highlighted the close working relationship between the Border Patrol and nongovernmental aid organizations in El Paso.
The judge’s core focus was El Paso’s Migrant Support Services Center, which the city opened last year to relieve pressure on a nonprofit community that has weathered a succession of trying episodes in recent years: from the Trump administration’s family separation program, to the anti-immigrant terror attack at a local Walmart, to seeing the critical donations needed to support border-based humanitarian aid work dry up with Biden’s inauguration. Samaniego described how the center’s success in connecting nearly 27,000 asylum-seekers with family members across the country was “proof that an organized, well-funded system is manageable — even on a larger scale.”
“I’m here to dispel false narratives about our communities and ask that you reject partisan politics.”
“What your border communities need is understanding and the continued resources to handle these events,” he said. “I’m here to dispel false narratives about our communities and ask that you reject partisan politics, reform our outdated immigration laws, and find a way to support us in providing a humane, effective, and orderly response when surges occur.”
Samaniego had little opportunity to elaborate on the center’s work during questioning by Republican lawmakers. The judge was instead used as a sounding board for the swirl of incoherent talking points, half-truths, and lurid conspiracy theories that make up the GOP’s image of the Southwest. The border, they say, is both “open” and “run” by smugglers; the reason why smugglers would be needed if the border is open is never explained in these depictions and that remained the case throughout Wednesday’s proceedings.
Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., read a news article from his phone to the El Paso judge. The article described the violence that followed the recent arrest of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán’s son in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
“Do you not see it as possible that in a future with an uncontrolled border we can’t control, that those same conditions could exist on the streets of American cities?” Bishop asked.
Visibly searching for the right words, Samaniego replied, “I believe that’s not the case because I think we’re mixing two things.”
On the border imagined by the Republicans, Mexico is both a nation that was utterly powerless to stop the most brutal criminal forces on the planet, and the correct place for the U.S. government to force asylum-seekers to wait out their case, as was the policy under former President Donald Trump.
The GOP lawmakers were adamant that rule of law needed to be enforced — except, evidently, in the case of asylum.
While Samaniego is a largely local figure in El Paso, Dannels is not. As the most high-profile law enforcement official in the state’s largest county, the sheriff is a central character in Arizona’s right-wing political sphere and, by extension, the national MAGA universe as well.
With nearly 40 Fox News appearances since 2018, according to a recent Media Matters count, as well as multiple interviews with white nationalist fraudster Steve Bannon, the Cochise County sheriff was at home describing his area of operations in southern Arizona as a war zone.
“This is the largest crime scene in this country,” Dannels said.
Though he insisted that he did not travel 2,000 miles to promote a “political agenda,” Dannels repeatedly described the border today as the worst it’s been in decades and pinpointed the shift in conditions to the change in presidential administrations. “It was better under President Trump,” he said. “This is the worst I’ve seen.”
Dannels’s counterpart in neighboring Santa Cruz County, Sheriff David Hathaway, has publicly pushed back on such descriptions as wildly exaggerated, unhelpful, and self-interested.
Early in the hearing, in an attempt to overcome the fact that the overwhelming majority of fentanyl is seized at U.S. ports of entry, not between them, Roy argued that the Border Patrol is “now distracted processing human beings” and “can’t possibly catch all the fentanyl at the ports of entry.” Dannels agreed with the Texas Republican’s assessment.
The attempted justification revealed that Roy, the same advocate for defunding Homeland Security, shares with the sheriff of Cochise County a dim grasp of which parts of the department do what. Border Patrol agents do not work at ports of entry. That work is done by officers with the Office of Field Operations, a separate entity under U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency that Dannels misidentified as “Customs and Border Patrol.”
On the eve of the hearing, Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, convened a call with reporters predicting that Jordan and his colleagues would use their first judiciary hearing to cast the president as an international criminal mastermind orchestrating a border invasion. The first-term member of Congress took the Biden administration to task for failing to acknowledge the intent of House Republicans, and for extending the Trump administration’s central tool for stifling asylum access at the border — the Covid-era program known as Title 42 — out of a mistaken notion that it will garner respect, cooperation, or goodwill from GOP lawmakers.
“I think it’s a mistake to expand Title 42, one, because it will make the humanitarian crisis worse, and two, because the far-right extremists in the Republican Party are not engaging in a policy debate,” Casar told reporters. “They are not going to slow down their attacks on the administration just because the administration takes a harder line on immigration.”
Casar was on joined on the call by experts in armed right-wing extremist groups. The experts traced how the ideological currents that flow through the Republican Party on border and immigration issues — particularly the notion that the federal government is importing foreigners to destroy conservative America — routinely find their way into the manifestos and justifications of right-wing killers.
“When migrants are described as invaders, that leads to violence. Because how else does one stop an invasion?”
“These sorts of ideas, this dangerous anti-immigrant rhetoric, is causing a horrific distortion in the way that we deal with immigration and immigration policy, and it’s also leading to violence,” Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “That connection is brutally clear.”
Beirich pointed to recent mass killings in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Buffalo, New York. “When migrants are described as invaders, that leads to violence,” she said. “Because how else does one stop an invasion?”
“I’m frankly just astounded that you could have so many political figures on the right parroting ideas that have led to mass murder,” she added. “I think this is just a shocking development that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.”