PHARR, Texas -- Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz told lawmakers near the southern border on Wednesday that parts of the boundary with Mexico are in "crisis" and that U.S. authorities do not have "operational control" despite recent declines from the historically high levels of illegal migration seen in the past year.
"The migration flow represents challenges and -- in some areas -- a crisis situation," Ortiz said, citing the more than 900,000 unauthorized migrant encounters so far this budget year.
Ortiz painted a complex and dynamic picture of the southern border in testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee, noting that Border Patrol apprehensions over the past two months have "declined significantly." In January, apprehensions hit the lowest point since the early weeks of the Biden administration, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
"Challenges and crisis are nothing new for the Border Patrol, and I'm incredibly proud of our personnel as well as our many partners," Ortiz said.
House Homeland Security Chairman Mark Green, R-Tenn., asked Ortiz point-blank if the U.S. is currently meeting the definition of "operational control" at the southern border, as defined by federal law.
"No, sir," Ortiz responded.
However, by that measure, no administration in U.S. history has ever achieved such control. Title 8 of the U.S. Code defines operational control as the "prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States," a task complicated by the vast size and geographic variety of the southwest.
The Border Patrol itself has defined operational control differently than under Title 8. Instead of setting the bar at sealing the border between official crossing points, the agency has defined control as its ability to respond to specific and immediate threats.
Still, Ortiz told the House committee, there were problems that Congress could help solve.
"Today's border environment requires a whole-of-government solution to include international engagements, resourcing and consequences which could be in the form of legislative or policy adjustments," Ortiz said. "And that is where I asked for your help. We need more options."
In a statement on Wednesday, White House spokesperson Ian Sams accused Republicans of "playing partisan games at the border," noting their lack of support for President Joe Biden's border security funding proposals.
"Perhaps House Republicans could take the time at this hearing to look the Chief of the Border Patrol in the eye and honestly explain to him why they want to slash the funding needed to combat fentanyl trafficking, stop unlawful border crossings, and conduct other important law enforcement efforts at the border," Sams said.
While conservatives in Congress have approved funds to the border multiple times under Biden, they have since said more money isn't appropriate without different border policies. Others, like Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, have called Biden's proposed border funding "more talk with no action" because it doesn't fix issues with border agent staffing and more.
Republican House committee members held Wednesday's hearing at South Texas College near the border in Pharr. Green opened the hearing by admonishing Democrats for not attending.
Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, pulled out of the hearing over what he said were Republican attempts to "score political points."
"After careful consideration, Committee Democrats have decided not to participate in the Republicans' field hearing this week," Thompson said in a statement. "Unfortunately, it has become clear that Republicans planned to politicize this event from the start, breaking with the Committee's proud history of bipartisanship."
Thompson said Democrats plan to visit the southern border as soon as this week.