Graham, Cuellar press Biden to name border czar

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) addresses reporters during a press conference on Friday, July 30, 2021 to discuss the immigration situation in Rep. Henry Cuellar’s (D-Texas) district.
Greg Nash

Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents a Texas border district, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Friday urged the Biden administration to hire a border czar, suggesting former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson for the post.

In a letter to President Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Cuellar and Graham said Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “facilities and personnel are overwhelmed by the growing surge of migrants, many of whom are unaccompanied children.”

“We know this current influx is neither seasonal nor temporary,” added the lawmakers.

The unusual request comes a day after Biden unequivocally expressed support for a Democratic plan to include a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in an upcoming budget bill.

Biden had previously expressed doubts about including immigration in the bill, but he landed squarely on the side of including the provisions after a meeting with top Congressional Hispanic Caucus and pro-immigration legislators at the White House Thursday.

That proposal would include immigration in a reconciliation bill Democrats hope to move through the House and Senate. Such packages cannot be filibustered, meaning GOP senators could not block it.

The measure still needs approval from the Senate parliamentarian, who must rule whether immigration provisions have enough of a budgetary input to be eligible for reconciliation. And all 50 Senate Democrats must agree to the package.

Graham, who last week called the proposal the “dumbest idea in the history of the Senate,” again criticized the plan in a joint conference with Cuellar on Friday.

“The one thing I know you can’t do is provide legal status without first fixing the border because it will create a run on the border like you’ve never seen before,” said Graham.

“So this idea of putting DACA in the infrastructure package is a terrible idea until you first fix the border,” he added.

Cuellar, answering a question in Spanish, said he would support passing immigration provisions through reconciliation.

“We need three things when we talk about migration. We need to secure the border, we need a temporary worker program and we also need to have a way to give citizenship to the 11 or 12 million people we have,” said Cuellar.

“You heard the senator, he doesn’t agree with reconciliation. For me, if it is possible, I want to see it. I want to see something between Democrats and Republicans, but if this is the only way to put something in reconciliation, if it’s possible, we don’t know,” he added.

But the two lawmakers agreed that the current wave of immigration has put a disproportionate burden on border communities.

“You don’t have to listen to me, all you have to do is listen to the border communities and listen to the men and women of DHS,” said Cuellar.

“These are, and I emphasize, mainly South Texas, Hispanic, Democratic elected officials saying we need a pause and we need some help down here at the border,” said Cuellar.

Representatives of border communities in the Rio Grande Valley have consistently been calling for more support from the federal government, particularly amid fears of unvaccinated migrants further spreading the coronavirus pandemic.

While there is little evidence that migrants have statistically increased the risk of contagion in Texas, anecdotes of infected migrants have been widely shared in the region.

“In Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where CBP had over 20,000 enforcement encounters last week, Border Patrol agents are testing positive for COVID-19 at alarming rates,” wrote Cuellar and Graham.

Immigrant advocates have accused Border Patrol officials and local Republican officials of scaremongering by blaming COVID-19 cases on immigrants while defying mask mandates and downplaying the importance of vaccinations.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has pushed back against vaccine mandates, on Wednesday signed an order effectively making it illegal to transport undocumented immigrants in a car, under the guise of preventing the pandemic’s spread.

The move drew swift condemnation from civil rights groups, and prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to threaten a federal lawsuit against Texas.

Still, residents and representatives of the Rio Grande Valley say their region is overburdened by border issues often ignored in Washington.

Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas), who represents the district neighboring Cuellar’s, questioned his neighbor’s approach, but agreed that the White House needs to act on the border.

“Not sure if a letter was the best approach or if a czar is the answer. But the White House really needs to get more engaged on what is happening on the border. They need to meet with border members and visit the critical areas being affected. They’ve got this wrong and we have been sounding the alarms for a long time now. People are frustrated,” said Gonzalez.

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas border security Coronavirus COVID-19 Immigration Joe Biden Lindsey Graham Merrick Garland

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