El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego looked confused as he answered questions from Republican lawmakers at a congressional hearing in Washington on Wednesday.
The Texas judge traveled to the Capitol to describe the daily challenges civil society groups face in providing humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers at the border. He was ready to discuss the trivialities of that work and to relay what he sees as “success stories” from his biracial, Mexican American community.
Instead, he found himself fielding what he agreed was a cartel war that would soon spill across borders and plunge the country into chaos — because, after all, wasn’t that the clear goal of the president of the United States?
The House Judiciary Committee hearing, titled “Biden’s Border Crisis – Part One,” was the first held by the new Republican majority. To no one’s surprise, six hours of testimony and partisan monologues revealed a legislative body far from passing legislation that would change US border enforcement and immigration policy as it was. It also confirmed the GOP’s continued commitment to an image of border communities under attack, inviting extremist violence in the region and against immigrant populations nationwide.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the committee chairman, set the tone. After an hour-long procedural battle over whether to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Jordan opened the hearing by outlining a central pillar of his party’s 2023 political vision: that President Joe Biden is intentionally allowing widespread lawlessness across the border through undocumented immigration and drug trafficking.
“Month after month, we’ve had record numbers of immigrants coming into the country, and frankly, I think that’s intentional,” Jordan said in his opening remarks. “Under President Biden, there are no borders and Americans are paying the price.”
As the day progressed, Jordan’s Republican colleagues took the argument further. “Immigrants are absolutely invading this country,” said Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas. The newcomers are “willing to kill,” added Rep. Troy Nehls, also from Texas. “The reality is that Joe Biden has enabled the largest human and drug trafficking operation in US history,” asserted Harriet Hageman, Republican of Wyoming. “This tragedy is not only man-made, it is government-mandated.”
Wednesday’s hearing comes as new data obtained by CBS News shows that apprehensions at the border fell nearly 40 percent in January, the lowest total seen since Biden took office after reaching a record high late last year. In the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, an agency spokeswoman told the Dallas Morning News that average daily encounters dropped from a high of 2,150 in December to 929 in January.
While the decline follows the administration’s overhaul of several key border and immigration policies earlier last month, experts cautioned that it may be too early to connect the two developments. Apprehension numbers at the border often fall in the winter months after the holiday season.
Samaniego, the judge, was invited to the hearing by his colleague El Pasoan, Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar. Republican 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 heartbreaking account of his family’s tragedy, it was the second Republican speaker, Arizona Sheriff Mark Daniels of Cochise County, who drew the attention of most members of the party.
Although Samaniego and Dannell both gave first-hand accounts of frontier conditions as local elected officials in Washington, 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 facing “invasion,” and that “humanitarianism and security” are a “binary choice.” The judge’s comments were not radical. They were rarely political. Samaniego didn’t call for defunding the Department of Homeland Security — something Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, one of Wednesday’s most fiery and ill-informed speakers, did. Indeed, Samaniego has repeatedly highlighted the close working relationship between the Border Patrol and non-governmental aid organizations in El Paso.
The judge’s main focus was El Paso’s Immigrant Support Services Center, which the city opened last year to relieve pressure on a nonprofit community that has endured successive trying episodes in recent years: from the Trump administration’s family separation program to anti-immigrant sentiment. A terrorist attack at a local Walmart, Biden’s inauguration to see critical donations needed to support border-based humanitarian work. 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 large scale.”
“I’m here to dispel false narratives about our community and ask you to reject partisan politics.”
“What your border communities need is understanding and continued resources to manage these events,” he said. “I’m here to dispel false narratives about our community and urge you to reject partisan politics, reform our antiquated immigration laws, and find ways to support us in providing a humane, effective and orderly response when escalation occurs. “
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 spinning incoherent talk, half-truths, and conspiracy theories that painted the image of the GOP in the Southwest. The border, they say, is both “open” and “run” by smugglers; Why smugglers would be needed if the borders were open was never explained in this depiction, and that was the case throughout Wednesday’s proceedings.
Representative Dan Bishop, RN.C., read a news article from his phone to the El Paso judge. The article describes violence following the recent arrest of the son of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
“Don’t you see it possible that in the future with an uncontrolled border we can’t control, that the same situation could exist on the streets of American cities?” asked the bishop.
Apparently searching for the right word, Samaniego replied, “I believe it’s not because I think we’re mixing up two things.”
In the border envisioned by Republicans, Mexico is both a nation powerless to stop the planet’s most brutal criminal force and the perfect place for the U.S. government to force asylum seekers to await their cases, as was the policy under former President Donald Trump.
GOP lawmakers were adamant that the rule of law needed to be enforced — except, obviously, in the case of asylum.
While Samaniego is an El Paso native, Daniels is not. As the most high-profile law enforcement officer in the state’s largest county, the sheriff is a central figure in Arizona’s right-wing political scene and, by extension, the national MAGA universe.
With nearly 40 Fox News appearances since 2018, according to a recent Media Matters count, as well as multiple interviews with white nationalist impostor Steve Bannon, the Cochise County Sheriff has been at home describing his area of operations in southern Arizona as a war zone.
“This is the largest crime scene in this country,” Dannell said.
Although he insisted he did not travel 2,000 miles to promote a “political agenda,” Daniels repeatedly described the border today as the worst in decades and attributed the change in conditions to a change in presidential administrations. “It was better under President Trump,” he said. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Daniels’ counterpart in neighboring Santa Cruz County, Sheriff David Hathaway, has publicly dismissed such narratives as exaggerated, unhelpful and self-serving.
Early in the hearing, in an attempt to get past the fact that the vast majority of fentanyl is intercepted at US ports of entry, not at them, the ruling argued that the Border Patrol is “confused about processing people right now” and “can’t possibly catch all the fentanyl at the port of entry.” Dannels agrees with the Texas Republican’s assessment.
The attempted justification revealed that Roy, the same attorney for Homeland Security defunding, shares a tenuous understanding of what parts of the department do with the Cochise County sheriff. Border Patrol agents do not work at ports of entry. This work is done by officers from the Office of Field Operations, a separate agency under US Customs and Border Protection, an agency that Daniels misidentified as the “Customs and Border Patrol.”
On the eve of the hearing, Rep. Greg Cassar, D-Texas, held a call with reporters predicting that Jordan and his colleagues would use their first judicial hearing to frame the president as an international criminal mastermind for organizing border attacks. The first-term member of Congress blasted the Biden administration for failing to acknowledge House Republicans’ intentions and expanding the Trump administration’s central tool to block asylum access at the border — the Covid-era program known as Title 42. A misconception that this will garner respect, cooperation or goodwill from GOP lawmakers.
“I think extending Title 42 is a mistake, one, because it will make the humanitarian crisis worse, and two, because the far right of the Republican Party is not engaged in policy debate,” Casar told reporters. “They will not slow down their attacks on the administration because the administration takes a hard line on immigration.”
Kasar joined the call for experts on armed right-wing extremist groups. Experts have traced how ideological currents running through the Republican Party on border and immigration issues — particularly the idea that the federal government is importing foreigners to destroy conservative America — regularly find their way into the manifestos and justifications of right-wing murderers.
“When immigrants are described as invaders, it leads to violence. Because how would anyone else stop the attack?
“This kind of idea, this dangerous anti-immigrant rhetoric, is causing a terrible distortion in the way we deal with immigration and immigration policy, and it’s leading to violence,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “That connection is brutally clear.”
Beirich points to recent massacres in Pittsburgh, El Paso and Buffalo, New York. “When immigrants are described as invaders, it leads to violence,” he said. “Because how else can one stop an attack?”
“I’m frankly amazed that you can have so many political figures right parroting ideas that have led to genocide,” he added. “I think it’s a fascinating development that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.”