Republicans and Democrats kicked off the first major immigration policy meetings of the new Congress at odds, with little agreement on even the most basic facts on the issue.
The parties have now faced off on the legislative stage twice, in hearings convened by the House Judiciary and House Oversight and Accountability committees. They’ve accomplished little more than to highlight the growing partisan split, despite a plea to “find a solution" from the El Paso Border Patrol sector chief.
The Judiciary Committee, led by GOP firebrand Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), hosted the more combative hearing, focusing on an alleged correlation between immigration and fentanyl trafficking and accusing the Biden administration of purposely dismantling border security.
"Make no mistake, the Biden administration is carrying out its plan," said Jordan in his opening remarks last week.
"We all heard [Homeland Security] Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas, who sat in front of this committee and said, 'we are executing our plan on the border.' And we all heard President Biden say, 'we're trying to make it easier for people to get here.' Well, they're certainly succeeding in that," added Jordan.
Tuesday’s Oversight hearing led by Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), which featured two Border Patrol sector chiefs as witnesses, was comparatively phlegmatic, though Democrats still voiced their anger at the GOP's handling of the subject matter.
"The extreme MAGA forces in the Republican Party have chosen to abandon the pro-immigration stance of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan and instead spread fear about a 'foreign invasion,' paranoia about the racist and antisemitic 'Great Replacement' mythology, and disinformation about fentanyl — the vast majority of which is brought into our country by American smugglers working for the international drug cartels and traveling through lawful ports of entry," said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee.
"I ardently hope today’s hearing will become a chance to search for bipartisan agreement rather than another missed opportunity. … Turning this into more bad political theater will just extend the long pattern of failure on this question."
But Raskin's hopes for bipartisanship were quickly quashed.
Following Comer and Raskin's opening remarks, Comer took the microphone to complain about a White House memo released early Tuesday that said, "House Republicans are more interested in staging political stunts than on rolling up their sleeves to work with President Biden and Democrats in Congress," and a tweet from the Oversight Democrats wishing, "Good morning and good luck to everyone except @GOPoversight members who are using today's hearing to amplify white nationalist conspiracy theories instead of a comprehensive solution to protect our borders and strengthen our immigration system."
"I mean, really? I don't even know what to say about that," said Comer, before reminding Democrats that House rules prohibit personal attacks between members.
For the next five hours, Oversight members essentially replicated the bifurcated proceedings of a week prior at the Judiciary Committee.
At the heart of the rift, apparent in both hearings, is a disagreement over whether the fentanyl crisis, legal immigration, asylum and border security should be treated as separate issues, or whether a border crackdown would resolve them all.
But the witnesses were a key distinction between the two hearings.
Comer invited two active duty border security professionals, Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Agent Gloria Chavez and Tucson Sector Chief Agent John Modlin, both of whom fielded questions from Republicans and Democrats alike on a variety of border-related issues.
“If I wanted to have a big political hearing that was full of red meat, we would have victims’ families that lost their lives to fentanyl. We would have people that have been human trafficked. But we’re not. We just asked four Border Patrol bosses," Comer told attendants at a National Press Club event last month.
Jordan took the "red meat" approach, calling on Brandon Dunn, a father whose son died from a fentanyl overdose and the founder of Forever 15 Project, an organization to raise awareness of the dangers of the drug.
The Ohio Republican also called on Cochise County, Ariz., Sheriff Mark Dannels and Dale Lynn Carruthers, county judge of Terrell County, Texas (though Carruthers was unable to attend because of weather conditions).
Advocates were heavily critical of Jordan's choice of Dannels and Carruthers as witnesses, pointing to Dannels's frequent appearances on right-wing media and alleged connections to immigration restrictionist groups.
Heidi Beirich, an expert in American and European right-wing groups and co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said both Dannels and Carruthers had embraced the rhetoric of an "invasion" at the southern border.
"The fact that Daniels and Carruthers have engaged in this racist rhetoric about immigrants and their ties to hate and other extremist groups disqualify them from any productive discussions on things related to immigration," said Beirich.
Scores of Democrats called out the GOP's "invasion" rhetoric as going too far, though most Republicans avoided the word, and Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Texas) defended its use.
"The definition of an invasion is an incursion by a large number of people or things into a place or sphere of activity,” he said, repeating claims that enough fentanyl has entered the U.S. to “kill every American five times.”
"I would consider that to be the direct definition of the word invasion,” Hunt said.
But Democrats largely countered that point with Customs and Border Protection data that shows more than 90 percent of fentanyl enters the United States through legal ports of entry.
"This hearing isn't about border security or solving our opioid crisis. It isn't even facts. What it's about is painting immigrants as villains in order for my colleagues to further their anti-immigrant agenda," said Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.).
"Republicans are trying to rewrite history to hide their extremist agenda from the American people," he added. "This extreme wing is trying to say that immigrants are trafficking fentanyl across an unchecked border but we know that that's not true. Why? Because it happens at the ports of entry by U.S. citizens, not mainly by asylum seekers."
The partisan split on immigration policy prescriptions is nothing new.
"This is just exactly the kind of finger-pointing rather than serious efforts of problem solving, and political theater rather than problem solving that we're likely to see because the Congress has abdicated its role for decades now, where immigration – and updating immigration laws and capabilities – are concerned," said Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service who now leads the Migration Policy Institute's U.S. Immigration Policy Program.
But the rift has grown in scope and in political impact.
"The worldview seems so dichotomous. How in the world do we bridge a gap?" said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who shortly after the Judiciary hearing led a group calling for the impeachment of Mayorkas.
Democrats are convinced the GOP's hard line is just political grandstanding.
"It's the presidential election starting now. Immigration is the issue. It's an effective one that continues to be used over and over. It will be ugly," said Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.).
Despite the distance between the two parties, the Border Patrol officers at Tuesday’s hearing, who largely relayed a landscape of officers under-resourced compared with smugglers and cartels, pleaded for some kind of legislative action.
"I think we really just need to embrace change, good change, so that we reform our immigration law and have that balance between immigration and border security and get serious about that. We need to find a solution," said Chavez, the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector chief.
Emily Brooks contributed.