Pinal, Yuma officials tell House migration surge is overwhelming them

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb and Yuma Regional Medical Center President and CEO Robert Trenschel, center, testified at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing to the impact surging immigration has on their communities. (Photo by Alexis Waiss/Cronkite News)

Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Tucson, does not sit on the Homeland Security Committee, but sat in for the testimony of Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb and Yuma Regional Medical Center President and CEO Robert Trenschel. (Photo by Alexis Waiss/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Arizona officials told a House committee Tuesday that local law enforcement and health care workers are ill-equipped to handle the recent surge of immigration at the southern border.

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb and Dr. Robert Trenschel, president and CEO of the Yuma Regional Medical Center, testified as part of a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on the “border crisis.” It was the latest in a string of GOP hearings – two of which were held this month in Arizona border communities – attacking the Biden administration for its handling of the border.

Lamb testified that human trafficking incidents in his county have grown four-fold over the past two years, while seizures of fentanyl pills have grown by more than 600% in the same period.

“Our biggest frustration stems from being told by this administration and the media that there is not a crisis at our southern border, and the lie that our southern border is secure,” Lamb said in his prepared testimony. “Clearly, our statistics tell a different story. And that story is that the border is not secure.”

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It was a theme repeated by Republicans through much of the three-hour hearing – titled “Every State is a Border State: Examining Secretary Mayorkas’ Border Crisis” – who argued that fentanyl smuggling and human trafficking are harming communities not just along the border, but across the country.

But Democrats shot back that Republicans are not interested in solutions, like immigration reform and addiction treatment, but only in scoring political points with a xenophobic, fear-mongering narrative.

“We are a nation of immigrants, so these broad attacks that we’re hearing today on immigrants today I believe is un-American,” said Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif.

“We want to work with our colleagues to … understand that our ports of entry are also places where fentanyl is coming in huge numbers,” Garcia said. “But we also need to have conversations around drug treatment programs, mental health care and access to care, none of which is happening today at this committee.”

The hearings come as apprehensions at the southern border have fallen sharply, but still remain at record levels, with 2.5 million immigrants apprehended last year, according to Customs and Border Protection data. The agency also reported that fentanyl seizures at ports of entry totaled 14,699 pounds in fiscal 2022, just over three times as much as was confiscated in fiscal 2020.

Trenschel and Lamb said it’s not just a federal problem: Those issues are spilling over into their communities.

“Yuma is only a population of 100,000 people, and we’ve had 300,000 people cross the border in a year, and we’re the only hospital they go to,” Trenschel said before the hearing. “So they come to us and that’s impacted our hospital significantly and disproportionately. We need a payor source for those individuals, that’s what we need.”

The House Homeland Security Committee hearing with Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, right, and Yuma Regional Medical Center President and CEO Robert Trenschel was the most recent in string of hearings led by House Republicans that focused on the Biden administration’s handling of the border. (Photo by Alexis Waiss/Cronkite News)

He made a similar plea last week, when Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee held a field hearing in Yuma. Trenschel testified Tuesday that the Yuma Regional Medical Center has racked up $26 million in uncompensated health care in the past year from treating migrants who have no ability to pay.

“One hospital should not, and cannot, bear the health care costs of a national migrant problem that is deeply impacting Arizona and our community,” he told the committee.

But Trenschel’s testimony was largely overlooked by committee members. Republicans spent most of the hearing blaming the Biden administration for the surge in fentanyl, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, R-Ga., saying administration officials “have blood on their hands because they refuse to secure our border.”

That line of attack was not lost on Rep. Glenn Ivey, D-Md. He said Republicans on the committee had talked about filing criminal charges against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and possible military strikes in Central America – but made no mention of funding for programs that might actually address the situation at the border.

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“They want to talk about, let me get this right, prosecuting Mr. Mayorkas for negligent homicide, they want to talk about removing Mr. Mayorkas from office,” Ivey said. “But fixing the border crisis, which is what I thought this hearing was going to be about, we don’t get much conversation about that.”

Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Tucson, said that Congress needs to address both the flow of fentanyl that Republicans are focused on and the immigration reform that Democrats are demanding.

“I really believe we can have a conversation about immigration and about border security. I care about both,” Ciscomani said. “I’ve lived both obviously, being an immigrant and also living in a border community.”

David Bier, the associate director of immigration studies for the Cato Institute, said the drug problem will not go away as long as there is demand in the U.S. And he said that most migrants, particularly asylum seekers, are not bringing crime with them, citing data that shows immigrants have lower incarceration rates and contribute heavily to economic productivity.

“We talked about car chases that are injuring Americans, we’re talking about recruitment of teenagers to take part in smuggling activities of persons. Those problems would … dissipate under a legal immigration system that actually worked and served the needs of American communities,” Bier said.

Lamb said federal action is long overdue.

“What happens in my backyard today will be in your front yard tomorrow no matter what state you are in,” Lamb said during his testimony. “And that’s not just drugs, it’s also humans being trafficked for slavery.”

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.