Two weeks after the Biden administration ended the use of the pandemic era health policy known as Title 42 to reduce the number of asylum seekers given provisional admission to the country, two of Congress's leading voices on border security and immigration said they were "struck" by what they saw and were told during an oversight trip to the border this week.
Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who chairs the Homeland Security subcommittee on border management, led her third bipartisan delegation this year to her state’s border with Mexico, bringing with her the subcommittee’s ranking member, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford. The two wanted to see how the border was functioning without Title 42 but with some adjustments to asylum policy made just days before Title 42 expired.
“I was struck to see border patrol are spending the majority of their time processing asylum-seekers and migrants,” said Sen. Sinema (I-AZ) at a news conference in Nogales Wednesday. “And spending very little time actually out in the field looking for individuals who are seeking to enter the country unlawfully, or interdicting the trafficking of drugs.”
In anticipation of a surge in border crossings after the lifting of Title 42, the Biden administration dispatched 1,500 active-duty troops to the border for 90 days, not to conduct law enforcement duties but rather to take over some of the clerical and support duties tying up border agents.
Migrant encounters between legal ports of entry, while still at historically high levels, have declined in the last couple weeks, but Sen. Lankford says agents have described a disturbing trend, just the same.
“It really struck me,” Lankford stated at the news conference, “how many times the border patrol agents over the last two days have said to me, the population is significantly changed of who’s coming over the border: fewer Spanish speakers, more people from the Middle East, from Pakistan; they just interdicted someone from Russia and they’re interdicting more people on the terror watch list.”
Lankford said it is way too easy for most anyone at the border to claim asylum and be released into the country, pending a court hearing. He said most won’t actually qualify for asylum, but the court backlog is so great, it can be as long as ten years before their case is heard.
“We’ve got to have a faster screening process,” Lankford told reporters. “A higher threshold of what it actually means to get asylum, so that we get legitimate asylum-seekers in the country faster and [block] people that are just trying to be able to use a loophole into the system.”
Senator Sinema said the Mexican crime cartels are taking full advantage of the broken system, sending a steady stream of people across the border to file asylum claims and keep border agents busy processing them all.
"It’s the perfect recipe for cartels to exploit,” said Sinema. “While our agents in blue and green are spending their time processing folks, the bad guys are getting through.”
And they’re bringing dangerous, potentially deadly drugs -- fentanyl most notably -- with them, Sinema said.
The solution, both lawmakers say, may lie with the administration in the short term, but ultimately falls to Congress — to both fix the nation's asylum policy and give CBP agents the technology, tools and manpower they need.
“We recognize that it’s not just about talking points on television,” Sinema stated. “It has to be the real work of finding that middle ground of solving both of these challenges in a realistic and pragmatic way.”