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GOP-led Homeland Security panel holds first border hearing, highlighting 'the human costs'

Among the witnesses was a mom whose sons died from fentanyl.

February 28, 2023, 2:13 PM

House Republicans on Tuesday once again seized on the issue of U.S. immigration following a trip to see the Biden administration's border security apparatus firsthand.

The House Homeland Security Committee -- now under Republican control -- held its first full hearing on immigration since President Joe Biden took office. The panel heard from a variety of witnesses, including a mother whose two sons died of opioid overdoses and a hospital executive from Arizona who spoke to the level of uncompensated care provided to migrants who entered the country illegally.

Ahead of the hearing, Chairman Mark Green told ABC News that "we're going to show the human costs to every American. We're going to show the financial costs. We're going to show the criminal costs."

Green led members on a trip to the Mexican border last week to meet with regional officials and observe U.S. Customs and Border Protection operations.

"It's been eye-opening," he said, adding that he heard extensively from border officials about the diversionary tactics used by criminal smuggling organizations.

PHOTO: Rebecca Kiessling, a mother from Michigan who lost two sons to fentanyl poisoning, wipes away tears during a House Homeland Security Committee about the U.S-Mexico border on Capitol Hill, Feb. 28, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Rebecca Kiessling, a mother from Michigan who lost two sons to fentanyl poisoning, wipes away tears during a House Homeland Security Committee about the U.S-Mexico border on Capitol Hill, Feb. 28, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Much of Tuesday's hearing focused on the hotly debated link between the Biden administration's border policies and illegal narcotics smuggling. The testimony from the mother who sons both died from the synthetic opioid fentanyl quickly became an emotionally charged moment.

Rebecca Kiessling, a lawyer from Michigan, explained how her boys thought they were taking the pain killer Percocet. In reality, the pills they got from a drug dealer contained deadly amounts of fentanyl, she said. Her sons were 18 and 20 when they died in 2020.

"You're talking about children being taken away from their parents," Kiessling said, nearly overwhelmed recounting her sons' deaths. "My children were taken away from me … this should not be politicized."

Kiessling believes the fentanyl her sons took was illegally smuggled across the southern border, which tracks with the majority of known seizures of narcotics coming into the U.S.

However, attempts by Republicans to link illegal drug smuggling to immigrants coming into the country are not as clear cut. The vast majority of narcotics are seized from the hands of U.S. citizens at legal ports of entry, despite record apprehensions of unauthorized border crossers in more remote areas.

Customs officers seize between 80-90% of every drug type caught entering the U.S. illegally, excluding marijuana, while as many as 77% of federal drug trafficking convictions have been of U.S. citizens, according to the Cato Institute.

"The committee is right to investigate the scourge of fentanyl deaths," David Bier, associate director for immigration research at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said in his own testimony at the hearing. "But immigrants are not the cause."

Bier instead advocated for stronger, health care-focused solutions for illegal narcotics consumers, including the legalization of drug testing products.

PHOTO: Committee chairman Rep. Mark Green (R-TN) speaks during a House Homeland Security Committee about the U.S-Mexico border on Capitol Hill February 28, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Committee chairman Rep. Mark Green (R-TN) speaks during a House Homeland Security Committee about the U.S-Mexico border on Capitol Hill February 28, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

"I do not believe that there is a solution to fentanyl smuggling and ports of entry," he said. "At the end of the day, the black market is supplying drugs to U.S. consumers who are paying for it."

Republicans have simultaneously cheered and derided increases in drug seizures by U.S. authorities, sometimes suggesting they reflect how trafficking is getting worse at the border.

But while increasing the ability of authorities to confiscate drugs -- which Democrats have supported -- often results in more drugs seized, the level of smuggling that goes undetected is still much less clear.

At one point in the hearing, Bier became locked in a heated exchange with Republican Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina, who appeared to blame criminal behavior at the border on legal attempts at immigration. After asking for assurances that legal forms of immigration are not susceptible to criminal activity, Bishop repeatedly cut off the witness, accusing him of launching a "filibuster" in his response.

"Well, we actually have experienced with legal immigration of Mexicans and Central Americans–" Bier started to answe.

"You're not going to answer my question about why they have continued to charge the fees?" Bishop interrupted, raising his voice.

"You asked me a question. You attacked me," Bier shot back before the chair called the committee to order.

"I'm gonna let you answer my question," Bishop said, "if you answer my question, and that question is: What would prevent cartels from charging legal immigrants if they were coming across in mass?"

"We already have experienced with this, sir," Bier replied. "We have legal immigration. It's just extremely unusual and constrained. We have no year-round guest worker program –"

"I'm not talking about guest worker programs," Bishop interrupted again. "You don't want to answer it, that's fine."

"That's legal immigration, sir," Bier said.

After working to roll back many of the hardline immigration measures under former President Donald Trump's tenure, the Biden administration has more recently instituted policies it says are designed to incentivize lawful and humane travel to the U.S. while maintaining other restrictions, including on asylum.

"Under this administration, our department has been executing a comprehensive strategy to secure our borders and rebuild our immigration system," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in testimony before the House last year. He contended then that "we inherited a broken and dismantled system that is already under strain."

Over the past two months, the Biden administration has rolled out a crackdown on asylum claims -- drawing the ire of immigration advocates -- while ramping up efforts to more quickly expel or deport migrants who illegally cross the southern border.

At the same time, the administration has offered new, yet narrow, pathways for migrants to obtain temporary status in the U.S. that allows them to seek humanitarian protections.

PHOTO: Mark Lamb, Sheriff of Pinal County, Arizona, and Robert J. Trenschel, CEO of Yuma Regional Medical Center, testify during a House Homeland Security Committee about the U.S-Mexico border on Capitol Hill February 28, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Mark Lamb, Sheriff of Pinal County, Arizona, and Robert J. Trenschel, CEO of Yuma Regional Medical Center, testify during a House Homeland Security Committee about the U.S-Mexico border on Capitol Hill February 28, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“Instead of pointing fingers and trying to score political points, Congress should work on legislative solutions for our broken immigration system, which it has not updated in over 40 years,” a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News on Tuesday.

Biden officials maintain that the dual-track approach is essential for deterring frivolous claims for refuge in the U.S. while keeping options open for those fleeing violence and persecution, predominately in Central and South America.

The change in policy is the latest target for Republicans who have repeatedly challenged the administration with legal action over its immigration moves. Last month, 20 states with Republican attorneys general sued to stop some of the Biden administration's latest immigration policies which the party has largely attempted to link to drug smuggling.

GOP critics often point out -- as Bier did in his appearance on Tuesday -- that the vast majority of smuggled narcotics are trafficked through legal ports of entry. They say the surge in unauthorized migration is a separate matter.

Green told ABC News ahead of the hearing that criminal organizations are engaging in diversionary tactics, forcing authorities who would otherwise stop smuggling to turn their attention to stopping migrants.

However, the U.S. Border Patrol is a distinct federal agency and guards the vast stretches of land between official border crossing stations. And while the Department of Homeland Security has at times surged resources from elsewhere to address large numbers of migrants, Democrats have also proposed record funding for Border Patrol staffing as well as new resources for ports of entry.

Congress has repeatedly been stymied on passing bipartisan immigration legislation -- given the sharp policy differences on the issue, largely among Republicans -- much less the level of comprehensive reform called for by nearly every party involved in the debate.

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