Cochise sheriff comes to ‘share the reality’ of border in House testimony

Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that the situation at the border had deteriorated since President Joe Biden took office, and that that is affecting public safety in his county. (Photo by Alexis Waiss/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels told a sharply divided House committee Wednesday that drug trafficking and illegal immigration is getting worse and that it’s affecting the safety of residents in his border county.

Dannels cited rising seizures of fentanyl, growing numbers of traffickers and increasing – and more dangerous – encounters with smugglers paid to transport migrants inland from the border, all problems that he laid at the feet of the Biden administration.

“I’ve personally experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of being a border county,” he said in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee. “Currently, this is the ugliest I’ve experienced.”

Dannels’ testimony was part of the committee’s first hearing since Republicans took control of the House, and much of the daylong hearing on “Biden’s border crisis” was dedicated to sniping between Democratic and GOP members of the committee.

“Under President Trump the border was secure. Under President Biden there is no border,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the new committee chairman. “And Americans are paying the price.”

But Democrats accused Republicans of pushing an inaccurate narrative about the border that demonizes immigrants, including those seeking asylum. They said Republicans do not want to address the real problem, the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

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“It’s purposeful,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa. “They want the American people to be scared, they want us to feel threatened, they want to create divisions because ‘othering’ people makes it far easier to mistreat them.

“Our borders are not being overrun by dangerous criminals, but we do have a broken immigration system,” she said.

The hearing comes amid a time of steep challenges at the border. The number of migrants apprehended at the southern border reached a record 2.38 million in fiscal 2022. That pace continued into fiscal 2023, with more than 700,000 encounters in the first three months of the fiscal year, capped by a record 251,487 in December.

Seizures of fentanyl at ports of entry rose more than 200% over the last two years, according to Customs and Border Protection data, with 14,699 pounds seized in fiscal 2022.

Those issues have led Republicans to call for the ouster of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas – a call that was repeated Wednesday by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert. He introduced a resolution calling for Mayorkas to be impeached for his “reckless, intentional attack on America’s integrity, of our geography, of our borders.”

If Mayorkas supports the Biden administration’s border policies, Biggs said, “then he must be impeached because he is a public official who has lost public trust and is an immediate, imminent threat to the United States of America.” His comments came at a news conference where he was backed by a handful of GOP House members, including freshman Rep. Eli Crane, R-Oro Valley.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, speaks on his resolution calling for the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. He is backed by other GOP House members, including Rep. Eli Crane, R-Oro Valley, center, with beard. (Photo by Alexis Waiss/Cronkite News)

In an emailed statement Wednesday, a DHS spokesperson brushed off the impeachment threat, saying the agency will “continue our work to enforce our laws and secure our border, while building a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system.”

“Instead of trying to point fingers and score political points, the members of Congress recklessly and baselessly pursuing impeachment should work on legislative solutions for our broken system, which has not been updated in over 40 years,” the spokesperson wrote.

But Dannels said those efforts are not working.

“I work with many border patrol agents, federal agents, and to date I have never heard one say that it’s working: the morale, the frustration they feel, the frustration we feel,” he testified. “We’ve had to step up our game.”

Dannels, who also leads the Border Security Committee for the National Sheriffs’ Association, said local police efforts to reach out to federal officials have been largely rebuffed by the administration. His prepared testimony included pages of statements from numerous sheriffs’ organizations over the last two years that expressed a lack of confidence in border officials all the way up to Vice President Kamala Harris.

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Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said the federal government could hire more Border Patrol agents to deal with the problem, a move that Dannels conceded could help. But the sheriff also agreed with Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who said policy changes would be a more effective way to support local law enforcement

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., called it “a false narrative” to put the blame entirely on the Biden administration for the current state of America’s immigration system. Titling the hearing “‘Biden’s border crisis’ … is completely wrong,” he said.

“It is not Biden’s border crisis, this has been a crisis for over half a century, from Nixon and every American president after him,” Lieu said.

No matter who is in the White House, the only people who can truly fix the immigration system are members of Congress, if they can reach agreement, he said.

“And we had the chance to do that with a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the U.S. Senate on a bipartisan basis,” Lieu said. “And guess who stopped it: House Republicans.”

Dannels, who said he has probably testified to congressional committees five or six different times, said he is not fazed by the partisan squabbling and does not intend give up.

“I represent a rural community on the border. My goal is to share the reality,” he said of his testimony. “It’s not the first time I’ve testified. We’ll continue to do it till we see a change that enhances the quality of life for my community.”

Alexis Waiss uh-LEK-sis wice (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Alexis Waiss expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in social welfare. Waiss has reported for The State Press and PolitiFact at the Poynter Institute.