Portman to Biden Administration: Stop Giving a Green Light to Human Smugglers and Drug Traffickers

WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, once again urged the Biden administration to take action on the ongoing migrant and drug crisis at the southern border. In addition to the unprecedented number of individuals, children, and families attempting to enter the country unlawfully, illicit narcotics, like fentanyl, are also coming across the border and into the United States, resulting in a record number of overdose deaths in Ohio and throughout the country.  

In December, Portman visited the southern border in Nogales, Arizona where he witnessed firsthand the ongoing crisis and spoke to Border Patrol agents about the need for more and better technology to adequately scan all incoming passenger and commercial vehicles for drugs and other contraband. Portman has visited the southern border several times in the past year, and each time Border Patrol agents have highlighted the challenges they face with increased and more sophisticated efforts to smuggle illegal migrants and deadly drugs into the United States. 

Last week, Portman issued a statement after U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released operational statistics for December 2021 that showed that this December broke the record for the highest number of border arrests in December ever recorded. In addition, the statistics showed that Border Patrol continues to seize record numbers of fentanyl and other illicit narcotics from drug traffickers. In fact, seizures of deadly fentanyl increased by more than 50 percent between September and November. 

A transcript of the speech can be found below and a video can be found here.   

“Madam President, I’m here today to discuss the crisis at the border. Unfortunately, it’s not getting any better. In fact, it’s getting worse by any measurement. The flow of illegal drugs, illegal migration continue to surge. As the lead Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, I recently traveled to the US-Mexican border in Nogales, Arizona, just south of Tucson, to learn firsthand from Border Patrol and Customs officials and Border Patrol agents who are on duty 24/7, trying to protect our nation from illicit narcotics, unlawful immigration and terrorism. 

“It was my third trip to the border in the past year and like other trips, what I saw was alarming. Officials at the port of entry told me about the increasing and more sophisticated efforts to smuggle illegal and deadly drugs in the United States. They showed me some of the x-rays that have been taken of some of the vehicles where the smugglers are cleverly hiding these illicit narcotics into compartments. And by the way, this is deadly stuff. This is mostly now the illicit drug called fentanyl, which is a synthetic form of opioids that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is probably killing about two-thirds of the people who are dying from overdoses. And the number of overdose deaths in this country is at record levels. During the year of 2021, we believe it’s going to exceed 100,000 individuals. Record levels. 

“So why aren’t we scanning more of these vehicles for drugs and other contraband? The best numbers we have are that currently less than 2 percent of the passenger vehicles and less than 20 percent of the commercial vehicles coming into the United States are scanned for illegal drugs like this deadly fentanyl we talked about. That’s just unacceptable. A smuggler with multiple pounds of fentanyl, concealed in hidden compartments needs to know that there is no chance of getting across our border without some kind of search. 

“It’s not just a gap in our security, it’s a gaping hole in our security. And it’s resulting in lives being lost. In my home state of Ohio, where we’ve got a big issue with opioids, but also all across America, in a sense, every state is a border state now. Last year, Customs and Border Protection seized nearly 10,000 pounds of deadly fentanyl. That’s a 40 percent increase from 2020. But as officers on the line told me when I was down there recently, most of it is getting through. 

“A year ago, Congress mandated that the Department of Homeland Security give us a plan and a strategy to scan all vehicles at the ports of entry for deadly narcotics such as fentanyl. Unfortunately, even with this crisis that demands these new approaches, the Biden administration has failed to deliver this report, which was due more than six months ago. Let’s get that report done. Whether it’s crystal meth or cocaine or whether it’s fentanyl sometimes pressed into pills to make it look like something else, it’s flowing across the southern border. Let’s have a plan to stop this. 

“We also face challenges between the ports of entry. In Nogales, the Border Patrol agent in charge rode with me to look at the border. And what he described was an overwhelming record-breaking number of unlawful migrants and a record-breaking number of drugs like fentanyl and these other drugs coming into the United States. And he talked about the urgent need for more Border Patrol agents to be able to cover the border, new vehicles. Vehicle maintenance is a huge issue for the Border Patrol right now, and then technology, particularly cameras and sensors. So there’s a lot of discussion here, always about the wall. But what’s really important about a fence or wall is the technology that goes along with it. And when the Biden administration came in and they stopped construction of the wall, what they really did was they stopped the technology. In the El Paso sector, where I’ve been as an example, only about 10 percent of the technology had been completed for the fence that was being erected there. So they stopped building the fence. And you can see all the metal on the ground, which is very demoralizing for the Border Patrol because they have to fill the gaps 24/7 or figure out other ways to stop people. But most importantly, only 10 percent of the technology had been done, and they cut off all that. 

“We’ve already paid for it, by the way, taxpayers have paid for all that. And my thinking is Democrats, Republicans alike, talk about the need for technology. This is, again, monitors of some kind. There are various kinds out there that are very effective, cameras and the ability to respond quickly. So I toured the border area that had huge gaps in the fencing, too, which I just don’t get. Why would you want to spend all this money to build the border barriers and then leave big gaps in the middle? I saw broken areas of fencing that need repairs. I saw the need for new fencing in some areas. I walked up to one large gap only several miles from the city of Nogales. There is 15 to 20 foot fencing on either side of this gap and then there’s about 40 feet with just a four-strand barbed wire fence to keep cattle from coming into the United States, and vice versa. So that’s where the human smugglers go. They know about these gaps. 

“I saw lots of evidence of foot traffic, lots of plastic bottles and plastic bags discarded in the area from migrants who had crossed right there. Leaving these gaps is one of the reasons we face a crisis. We just learned in December that the Border Patrol apprehended more than 170,000 unlawful migrants in December. That’s the highest number ever in December. And by the way, people say, well, this is seasonal, so it’ll stop in December and January because it’s colder and people aren’t going to go or when it’s really hot in July, August. That’s not happened. For the first time ever, we see a continual flow of people. It’s not slowing down at all. 

“These dramatic increases in unlawful entries and illegal drugs in the last year are clearly due to the policy changes, again, that were put in place on day one of the Biden administration. Not just fewer deportations and a more lax approach to immigration generally, but a specific issue of stopping the installation of this technology and the fencing. Also, they made a major change immediately with regard to asylum policy. So now people know if they claim asylum, they’ll be released in the United States pending a court date, which on average is going to be five or six years away. They say the backlog is at least 1.3 million people now. The backlog. Is there any wonder that when people come to my home state of Ohio or go to my colleague’s state in Missouri or go to Nevada with five or six years ahead of them that it’s sometimes not possible to find them when the court date comes up? And that’s happening, obviously, increasingly so we need a policy that just makes sense, that doesn’t tell the smugglers, hey, if you get somebody in the United States, you can tell them they can get in, they can work, they can get their kids in school. And that’s what the smugglers do to people all over the world. It’s not just Central America. In fact there are more people coming from Ecuador now than there are from Honduras. I’m told in the last week there were five Syrians who were apprehended coming across the border. So it’s a lot of people from around the world who are being told by these smugglers who are exploiting them and their families, hey, just come on with me and we can get you in, pay me $10,000 or whatever it is. That’s one reason we have right now, this pull factor because of a policy issue we’ve got to address. 

“The administration also chose to end the Remain in Mexico policy, which said to people, hey, you can come and apply for asylum, but you got to wait over in Mexico until we adjudicate this. That discouraged a lot of people. A lot of folks went home because they were trying to obviously come in the United States, but that policy was ended. But generally speaking, the right policy is adjudicate these cases immediately, let people know we don’t want to have a 1.3 million backlog of people in the United States. Five, six years of waiting for a court case. It just doesn’t make sense. 

“Anyway, with these policy changes since the president’s inauguration, the southern border has faced the worst unlawful migration crisis in decades and the worst drug crisis ever. To help the Border Patrol do their job, we’re working on bipartisan legislation to increase the number of agents, address retention challenges of the existing workforce and respond faster to these humanitarian crises that come up by doing things like having a Border Patrol reserve that can respond to surges. 

“I’m always impressed with the men and women of Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol that I meet on my trips. They’ve got tough jobs right now. Really tough jobs. A lot of them are overworked. A lot of them are being pressed into doing processing and other things that they weren’t hired to do or trained to do. It’s tough and we’re making it even tougher with policies we’re putting out here in Washington. 

“The ongoing crisis is clear and persistent, no longer seasonal. I urge the Biden administration to change course, stop the policies that send the green light to these human smugglers to be able to exploit migrants and families all over this hemisphere and elsewhere now and stop giving a green light to the drug traffickers. Instead provide Congress with a plan to deter illegal immigration to detect and deny deadly drugs from crossing our border. America’s national security depends on it. American lives depend on it. I yield back.”