House Republicans hold 1st border hearing of new Congress

The latest Border Patrol data shows declining apprehensions.

Republicans on Wednesday took their first opportunity of the new Congress to illustrate what they call a protracted migration crisis across the southwestern border caused by the overly lax policies of the Biden administration.

"How many illegal aliens will cross the southern border this month?" House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who led the hearing, wrote on Twitter last week.

To answer Jordan's question: The number of illegal border crossings has recently declined, a data point that undermines the GOP narrative. This past week, according to the Department of Homeland Security, the pace of border apprehensions dropped to the lowest rate since February 2021 -- to about 5,000 per day. That's down from levels as high as 8,000 to 9,000 in December, according to DHS, and sources tell ABC News the downward trend continues to hold for now.

Regardless, Republicans continue to deride the administration over its latest efforts to pair a border crackdown with new, narrow pathways for certain migrants to seek relief.

Regional officials invited to the House Judiciary hearing on Wednesday provided a contrasting view of the challenges along the southern border, with familiar characterizations along partisan lines.

"The rule of law is not being fulfilled," Cochise County, Arizona, Sheriff Mark Dannels told lawmakers, pointing at what he called the slow pace of deportations under the Biden administration.

But El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said the migration challenges in his area stem from the need to stop unauthorized crossings while providing support to those exercising lawful asylum rights.

Border authorities responded swiftly to contain a surge of migrants who crossed into El Paso last December. Border Patrol agents were brought in from less impacted sectors and migrants were transported to other processing facilities while many others were immediately turned back.

"We have a strategy that I think people should look at," Samaniego said at the hearing, denying that the Biden administration opened the border in any way.

A group of mostly-GOP led states has sued the administration over its latest parole program expansion, which allows up to 30,000 vetted migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela to apply for temporary parole and a chance to seek more permanent humanitarian relief. Democrats have long supported pathways for asylum-seekers with some saying more can be done to support those fleeing violence.

"We need to establish a safe and orderly way for people to be able to get processed and, and be able to seek asylum," said Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, a member of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, which is planning its own border hearing later in February.

Along with the parole programs, Mexico has agreed to accept the return of up to 30,000 migrants from those four countries. For now, the administration is relying on the controversial Trump-era order under Title 42 of the U.S. health code which allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants from the border.

"I believe that expansion of Title 42 is something that is being implemented in order to slow Republican political attacks on immigrants and on the administration," Casar said. "I think that's a mistake."

Whether Title 42 is in fact expanded will depend on migrants continuing to attempt unauthorized border crossings. Given the message sent by an enhanced enforcement posture, combined with the opportunity to seek admission away from the border, the declines seen so far in January are an encouraging sign for the Biden administration.

Wednesday's hearing also featured Judge Dale Lynn Carruthers of Terrell County, Texas, who has likened the historic level of unauthorized migration across the southwest to an "invasion."

Far-right extremists have towed a similar line. Authorities documented anti-immigrant motivations and "invasion" rhetoric in connection with 2019 El Paso Walmart shooter Patrick Crusius, who killed 23 people and wounded dozens more. Crusius said he traveled to El Paso to stop what he called "the Hispanic invasion" of Texas.

Dannels, the sheriff in Arizona who testified at the hearing, has called the Biden administration's approach to immigration policy "open borders by design" regardless of the continued implementation of Title 42.

Despite progress made to reduce illegal crossings, a growing number of migrants have been turning to the seas -- showing up in South Florida. Seasonal weather patterns and storms in the Caribbean can slow migration temporarily and may indicate a false sign of progress.

This week the Biden administration announced the upcoming formal end of the COVID-19 health emergency. After attempting to repeal Title 42 border expulsion order, the Biden administration has been blocked in court by groups of mostly GOP-led states from fully repealing the emergency policy.

The broader end of the government's pandemic emergency declaration could serve as another attempt at rescinding the policy that has received significant criticism from the left. Immigrant advocates have denounced the administration for continuing to implement a program which allows for the sharp curtailment of humanitarian protections for migrants across Central and South America fleeing targeted violence.