Two senior Border Patrol chiefs told Congress on Tuesday that they need more border barriers because they help shape and control the flow of illegal immigration and drug smuggling into the U.S.
Gloria Chavez, chief patrol agent in the Rio Grande Valley sector of southern Texas, said she has found in her quarter century of experience working the border that walls work — and she would like more of them.
“There’s locations in my AOR, my area of responsibility, that requires barriers, that’s unprotected at this current time, as well as gates. Gates are super important for us, and currently there’s gates that are not there that leave us vulnerable,” Chief Chavez said.
John Modlin, chief patrol agent in Arizona’s Tucson sector, said his area did have significant wall construction during the Trump administration but has been left with “gaps” that must be filled.
They testified to the House Oversight and Accountability Committee just hours before President Biden was slated to deliver his State of the Union message to Congress. The agents’ remarks served as a serious challenge to Mr. Biden, who halted wall construction on his first day in office, has insisted that the border is secure and blames Republicans for the problems that exist.
The agents, each with a quarter century of experience on the border, delivered a starkly different picture. They said the situation has deteriorated in the last two years.
They pointed to a rise in the number of terrorism suspects detected, a rise in fentanyl being trafficked, an increase in border deaths and rescues, and a high suicide rate among overstretched Border Patrol agents.
Behind it all, they said, are smuggling cartels that maintain a vice-like grip south of the border, controlling everything that comes across — seizing the initiative and forcing agents to react.
“In Tucson sector, everything south of the border is controlled by the cartels,” Chief Modlin said.
Chief Chavez said the cartels outmatch the Border Patrol even in terms of drones, with more than 10,000 incursions into her sector alone in 2022. She showed lawmakers a map detailing the incursions, with southern Texas virtually blotted out by all the illegal drones.
Those cartel drones keep tabs on her agents, finding the holes where they can sneak drugs or people into the U.S.
In Tucson, Chief Modlin said, the Border Patrol is operating at just 60% effectiveness against the cartels’ onslaught.
He said the cartels have figured out new ways to keep agents distracted.
In the past, groups of 10 or 12 people would come across and a single agent could nab them. Now, the cartels divide them up, which means it takes more agents to nab the same number. Chief Modlin said it’s called “task saturation” and the cartels are doing it intentionally.
“I don’t have the correct adjective to describe what’s going on,” he said.
The hearing was the first to pierce the narrative that the Biden administration has spun about the border, giving senior career Border Patrol officials a chance to share details that the political appointees at the Department of Homeland Security shielded from Congress for two years.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas tried to scuttle the hearing by blocking the chief agents’ testimony. He relented after committee Chairman James Comer, Kentucky Republican, threatened to issue subpoenas.
Republicans wasted little time in getting the agents to offer unvarnished views that undercut much of the Biden administration’s claims.
The two agents said catching and releasing migrants into the U.S. encourages even more to make the journey. They confirmed estimates of massive numbers of illegal immigrants who the Border Patrol knows entered but were never caught, and acknowledged the dangers lurking in others whom agents never even detected.
They directly undercut Mr. Biden’s and Mr. Mayorkas’ insistence that more border wall isn’t needed.
Chief Chavez said the wall system serves as a force multiplier, meaning it takes fewer agents to patrol the border because they have more awareness thanks to sensors and can get to breaches faster thanks to the roads.
Chief Modlin said when he was a younger agent in San Diego, the U.S. side of the border was “uninhabitable” because “thousands of people” came across every night and property crime rates were high.
Eventually, a double wall was built and more agents were deployed, and he said the situation changed dramatically.
“If you look at it now, there’s very expensive homes in those areas and the community flourishes in an area that at one time was uninhabitable,” he said.
Democrats said Republicans were spinning “a false narrative” by holding the hearing.
Rep. Melanie Stansbury, New Mexico Democrat, said Republicans were aiming for “cable TV” moments instead of solutions by tying illegal immigration to broader issues of border security and the record amounts of fentanyl that are flowing across the U.S.-Mexico boundary.
“We should not be playing politics with people’s lives,” she said.
She accused the Trump administration of having broken the immigration system by putting too many illegal immigrants in detention and trying to block newcomers who want to file asylum claims.
Several Democrats pointed to Republican votes last year against a government spending bill that included 300 more Border Patrol agents, as well as more money to welcome and resettle the illegal immigrants into communities.
The Twitter account for the Democrats on the committee accused Republicans of spinning “white nationalist conspiracy theories.”
The White House issued a memorandum saying Republicans “want to make things worse at the border.”
Mr. Comer, the committee chairman, said the hearing was the first time since Mr. Biden took office that Congress has heard from agents on the front lines.
“I don’t understand how two front-line Border Patrol agents coming before this committee would make things worse,” he said.
Rep. Byron Donalds, a Black Republican from Florida, blasted Democrats for the White nationalism attack.
“I’m not doing that,” he said. “So if you feel that strongly, come walk over to this side of the room and let’s talk about it face to face. But leave that kind of silly stuff for somebody else. Don’t bring that here today. This stuff is serious.”