COVID-19 new conference

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker speaks during a news conference April 28, 2020, about the COVID-19 pandemic at the Lancaster County Public Safety Training Center near Salunga.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker returned to the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday to meet with local officials in Texas about the number of migrants trying to enter the country illegally.

A group of members of the Republican Study Committee -- the largest conservative caucus in Congress -- visited Rep. Tony Gonzales’s district in Eagle Pass, Texas, for a roundtable discussion with local law enforcement and elected officials who made the case for tough immigration policies, some of which were loosened after President Joe Biden took office in January.

The U.S.-Mexico border has seen a 71% uptick in migrant crossings since February, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol data released Thursday. Border patrol agents have had 569,800 encounters with migrants -- a 24% increase from the total number of encounters the agency had in all of 2020.

The Biden administration quickly reversed most of former President Donald Trump’s most restrictive border policies once taking office, including restarting the Obama-era program that allows some migrant families who are granted this exception to be released into the United States while they wait for their refugee application to be heard in court. That policy, however, still sees most migrants expelled to their home countries, according to Politifact.

For example, of the 172,000 people attempting to enter the United States illegally in March 2021, nearly 104,000 of them were expelled back over the border, according to the Border Patrol report.

The number of unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the border is also increasing, and remains the largest group being held in CBP facilities, according to the CPB report. The Biden administration is currently spending $60 million per week to house the increase in unaccompanied children, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

Eagle Pass, a Rio Grande River town about 150 miles southwest of San Antonio, has seen an increase of migrants and drug seizures, according to local officials participating in the roundtable (though CPB reported drug seizures were down 14% in March from the previous month). This has caused concern from local law enforcement agencies about their ability to protect public safety, and instead leaves them focused on helping U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, said Uvalde County Sheriff Ruben Nolasco.

“We’re basically working in immigration law now,” said Eagle Pass Police Chief A. Guajardo during the discussion, adding he hopes Congress includes immigration law training for local officers as part of its immigration reforms.

Guajardo added that most of the migrants coming to his city are “not aggressive,” and are often women and children. 

Sometimes these migrants will hide on private properties or even break into nearby homes in search of food while trying to hide from border patrol, several local border officials said.

Because of this, Guajardo and others said they are worried that nearby residents “will use their rights to protect their properties” -- and someone may get hurt.

Other attendees said they hope future immigration reforms hold the imperiled countries accountable for causing their people to flee. Many migrants are fleeing countries like Mexico and Central America due to violence, food insecurity, poverty and natural disasters.

The Biden administration has rejected Republican criticism of his handling of the border, with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas arguing last month that the conditions at the border are due to the Trump administration dismantling the previous system.

In addition, Biden appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to his administration’s efforts to address the underlying causes of migration in an effort to decrease the number of migrants trying to enter the country illegally, as well as fund economic development projects in Mexico and Central American countries in hopes of encouraging people to remain in their homelands.

At Thursday’s meeting in Eagle Pass, Border Patrol and local law enforcement agencies said they have had to deal with an increase in large groups of people crossing together. The Rio Grande Valley has been particularly impacted by large groups, with CBP recording 49 large groups totaling more than 4,700 people since the start of 2021.

This is happening in Eagle Pass, with local law enforcement having to address groups of more than 60 people on each of the last two days, said Mayor Luis Sifuentes during the roundtable. He said he worries smugglers use this as opportunity to bring drugs into the country elsewhere, while law enforcement is busy with these large groups.

In a press conference following the meeting, Smucker called on Harris and Biden to visit the border to “understand the impact their policies are having on these border towns, border cities throughout Texas.”

This was the first time Lancaster County’s representative in U.S. Congress said he was able to talk with local sheriffs and mayors about their frustrations implementing a federal policy he said “is absolutely broken and created this kind of humanitarian crisis.”

Smucker last went to the border in July 2019, when he led a trip of 14 members from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus to a border patrol intake facility and family detention center in McAllen, Texas.

Smucker’s office did not respond to a request for an interview with the congressman.

What to Read Next