In January, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. After a lengthy fight over the Speaker of the House resolved, the new majority wasted no time in holding multiple hearings on the current situation at the southern border. Unfortunately, the hearings, held in the Judiciary and the Oversight Committees, focused more on pursuing partisan narratives than on understanding and working to address the complex issues occurring at the border.
At both hearings, conversations around fentanyl smuggling dominated. House Democrats provided hard data and years of evidence showing that the vast majority of fentanyl that enters the country comes in through ports of entry, often smuggled by U.S. citizens. House Republicans, by contrast, insisted without any evidence that fentanyl was pouring across the border in backpacks.
Throughout the hearings, whenever House Democrats would plead for the focus on fentanyl to be on the places we know the drug is entering the country, House Republicans would insist that data on drug seizures was irrelevant. This antipathy continued even after the hearing, with the House Judiciary GOP’s Twitter account smearing a Washington Post report as a liar for fact-checking Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ)’s claims about where most fentanyl was entering the country.
Similarly, House Republicans and Democrats sparred over the purposes of the hearings, with Democrats calling out xenophobic narratives and Republicans insisting the hearings were just about oversight of a situation that some described as either total incompetence or a deliberate plot to open the border for nefarious reasons.
House Democrats used the opportunity to take a victory lap over the House GOP’s ongoing failure to pass Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX)’s bill that would essentially end the asylum system. Democrats repeatedly read off quotes from moderate GOP representatives who had called the bill unacceptable and highlighted bipartisan opposition from religious leaders.
At the House Judiciary Committee hearing, two witness chosen by the GOP majority testified. First, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, a so-called “constitutional sheriff,” testified about a rise of drug smuggling in his region of southeastern Arizona. Although Dannels began his testimony by acknowledging that the situation in his region was relatively unique due to geographical migration patterns, the House majority repeatedly came back to him as to validate their various theories about the situation happening across the border.
Dannels acknowledged that few migrants were arriving in his region to seek asylum. Unlike Yuma in western Arizona, Cochise County has not seen record levels of migrant arrivals, and apprehensions throughout the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector remain less than half the peaks seen 15 to 20 years.
Next, Brandon Dunn, a father who lost his 15-year-old son to an accidental fentanyl overdose, told a heartbreaking story of the ways in which his son’s death has affected their family and community. Throughout the hearing, members of both sides thanked him for his courage in testifying and offered to meet with him.
House Democrats called El Paso County Judge Ricardo A. Samaniego, who acts as a sort of county commissioner. Throughout the hearing, Samaniego talked about the ways in which the El Paso community had worked with the federal government to respond to increased migration. He also emphasized that a strong working relationship between the federal government and state and local governments can help diminish disruption caused by the release of some migrants at the border.
As someone who frequently works with law enforcement in the region, Judge Samaniego also brought a needed dose of on-the-ground reality to the hearing. He confirmed that in El Paso, nearly all the fentanyl is smuggled through the ports of entry. He also pushed back against GOP efforts to smear the work of NGOs in the region which assist newly arrived migrants, emphasizing that the Border Patrol has repeatedly praised their cooperation and considers it a critical part of border management.
This theme continued in the House Oversight Committee’s hearing on February 7, where two Border Patrol Sector Chiefs testified. Gloria Chavez, Chief of the Rio Grande Valley Sector, testified along with John Modlin, Chief of the Tucson Sector. When questioned by Democrats, both chiefs gave their full-throated endorsement to the support that NGOs provide the Border Patrol in assisting migrants who are released at the border.
The House Oversight Committee hearing largely mirrored the first hearing, with both sides again sparring over basic facts and the broader narrative. But perhaps the most revealing exchange came from freshman Congressman Maxwell Frost (D-FL), who asked both chiefs a simple question: had the Biden administration in fact ordered them to open the border and stop enforcing immigration laws? Both Border Patrol agents resoundingly denied the allegation.
These hearings showed the new reality in Congress: while both sides have significant disagreements about what is happening at the border and what the solution should be, some members see far more value in weaponizing the situation than in working toward durable solutions. Sadly, with a divided Congress, that’s a bad sign for Congress’ ability to get anything done on immigration.
FILED UNDER: Border Policy, Congress