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US Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of Biden's harshest critics on the migrant surge, is urging White House to listen to border towns

14:25  08 may  2021
14:25  08 may  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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LAREDO, Texas  – In a small park nestled between the Rio Grande River and an outlet mall, Rep. Henry Cuellar stood under a tree — one of the few spots offering relief from the sun on this 101-degree April afternoon — as he looked across the border towards Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

a man wearing a blue shirt: Rep. Henry Cuellar stands in front of the Rio Grande River on April 8, 2021. Cuellar, a Democrat, has been critical of the Biden administration's response to border issues. © Annie Rice, Caller-Times-USA TODAY NETWORK Rep. Henry Cuellar stands in front of the Rio Grande River on April 8, 2021. Cuellar, a Democrat, has been critical of the Biden administration's response to border issues.

The 65-year-old congressman, donning a tan button-down shirt and matching pants, lamented about the issues he’s seen in his community as an increased number of migrant children, families and adults make their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. American teenagers are being recruited by cartels to help smuggle people into the United States, ranch property is being destroyed, and now migrants are replacing drugs as the newest and most valuable commodity to smuggle into the country, he said.

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“In Laredo, you have people that are trying to evade, single male adults, you got stash houses, you got people that are being crammed in the 18 wheelers,” he said during an interview with USA TODAY. “So a lot of times people only see the one that pulls out or at our heart, and that is the unaccompanied kids and the family. But what about the darker side? There is a darker side.”

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The Democrat has emerged as one of President Joe Biden's harshest critics on the surge of migrants coming to the border, calling for relief for border towns shouldering the costs – financial and otherwise – of a record-level spike that has become a major partisan fight in Washington.

Months ago, Cuellar tried to warn Biden’s transition team about what was happening in his community, a city located less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border. But his warning didn't lead to much effort to address what was happening on the ground in South Texas, he said. For its part the administration has promised a more humane border policy than former President Donald Trump, focused on reuniting families, housing migrants so they don't have to make a dangerous trek home, and stemming the flow from Central America.

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“My whole thing has been to the White House is, I want to be helpful. Let me know what we can do,” he said. “You got other border legislators who have done this before. This is not the first time we've seen this. We've seen it now, and we're gonna see it in the future. So we want to be as helpful as possible to them.”

Perhaps no one knows the issues facing the U.S.-Mexico border as intimately as Cuellar. For much of his life, he's had a unique vantage point as a resident of Laredo, a former Texas secretary of state and longtime border congressman. He has worked with several administrations on the impact increased migration to the United States’ southern border has had on communities and migrants. And as the Biden administration continues to grapple with the increased number of migrant children, families and adults, Cuellar has offered what he sees as a vital message for Biden: Listen to border communities.

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The Texan, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, has represented portions of the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo for the past 16 years, including hundreds of miles of border.

And he routinely pushes back on the administration.

He was the first to show photos of what the inside of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas, looked like, with children shown crowded and lying on mats on the floor with foil blankets. He has been critical of the Biden administration’s message to migrants early on, when it told migrants it's not a good time to come to the U.S. "right now." . And Cuellar still says the border is not under control — despite Biden’s recent assertion it is.

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Most recently, he disputed photos released by CBP this week showing few migrant children at the once-crowded border facility in Donna, Texas.

"We cannot ignore the fact that they are essentially moving them from one tent to another tent within the same location," Cuellar said in a statement. "We are doing a better job about the outflow factor at the border, but we still need to address the inflow factor at the border."

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'You got to follow the law'

The Biden administration came into office eager to undo Trump's zero-tolerance policy on the border, but it's instead drawn criticism for how it's handled the increasing flow of migrants.

Many children and families are fleeing their home countries because of political and economic turmoil. In nations like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, families are fleeing gang violence and suffering from a lack of job opportunities made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. Back-to-back hurricanes last fall caused many families to become displaced and lose their jobs. There also migrants coming from other countries, like Haiti and Cameroon, who are fleeing political unrest.

The Biden administration over the past several months has seen dramatically high numbers of migrants coming to the border, though many of the migrant adults trying to come to the United States have been repeat crossings of people expelled by Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allows CBP to expel migrants to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in holding facilities. The number of migrants apprehended in March – 172,331 – was a record high.

Cuellar's biggest gripe with the administration is its aim of mitigating migration by focusing on Central America, while not trying to “enforce the laws” to stop migrants coming to the border, he says. He wants to see more solutions to help border communities in the United States, where he says there is a rise in cartels recruiting young Americans and is concerned about property damage to ranchers.

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Cuellar said the Biden administration must do more to penalize migrants and gang members who break the law, and for migrants who don't go through the proper process to seek asylum.

“They got to look at certain things, and it might be uncomfortable talking about what needs to be done, but it has to be done," he said. "If that's the law, then you got to follow the law. You can't pick and choose what part of the law you want to enforce."

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When asked how the administration is working with border communities in April, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said local governments and NGOs play "an incredibly important role." She noted some local governments are helping with coronavirus testing and paying for hotels to house migrant families who test positive for COVID-19.

"They play a really tremendous role in helping ensure we are working in a humane way with those who are coming to our border in a range of ways," Psaki said during a press briefing.

When asked about Cuellar's criticisms, the White House said it's working with local communities, but did not elaborate.

“The White House has consistently engaged with state and local governments – including border communities – on the challenges facing our immigration system," a White House spokesperson said.

The view from Laredo

The only barrier separating the sister cities of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo is the Rio Grande, less than a mile wide. The international bridge connects the two downtowns, and no towering border wall in sight.

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Cuellar, 65, is a Laredo native, and still lives there his wife Imelda and two daughters. Tracing the Rio Grande with his finger, Cuellar described to USA TODAY how the first "border fence" was built at the local college more than a decade ago after migrants would cross into the campus and try to blend in with students to evade border patrol. The fence, he said, was mostly for aesthetic purposes and did not keep migrants from coming to Laredo.

A city of more than 262,000 residents, Laredo sits alongside the river, where Mexican culture and identity are prevalent given its proximity to the border. According to the Census Bureau, 95.4% of Laredo residents identify as Latino or Hispanic.

a group of people walking in front of a building: This picture shows storefronts in Laredo, Texas, on January 14, 2019. - Thousands of people cross back and forth every day, in cars or on foot, between Laredo, Texas and its sister city Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The two cities have a © SUZANNE CORDEIRO, AFP via Getty Images This picture shows storefronts in Laredo, Texas, on January 14, 2019. - Thousands of people cross back and forth every day, in cars or on foot, between Laredo, Texas and its sister city Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The two cities have a "strong connection without a doubt," Laredo mayor Pete Saenz, an independent, told AFP. "We are connected economic-wise, culture-wise, socially as well." But Laredo also bears the marks of the heated debate over immigration that has roiled the country since the 2016 election of Donald Trump. (Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO / AFP) (Photo credit should read SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images)

Alongside national grocery and retail chains are taquerias, flower shops and local stores, many with signs in Spanish. At one shop, Casa San Agustin, a sign advertised bolsas (handbags), carteras (wallets) and mochilas (backpacks).

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But amid the shops, restaurants and homes in downtown Laredo, there are also hundreds of migrant families, many led by single parents and all who have children under the age of seven, who are transferred to a local non-profit. They are fed, clothed and stay until they are able to travel to their family or sponsors in the state or across the U.S.

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Just along the border are several ranches, where Cuellar said ranchers experience migrants coming to the United States through their properties.

Migrants walk on a dirt road after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Mission, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © Julio Cortez, AP Migrants walk on a dirt road after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Mission, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

He draws a distinction between those seeking to enter the U.S. in Laredo verses other points of entry.

He said many of the migrants coming to the U.S. are adult men from Mexico who are apprehended in Laredo, and the surrounding areas of the city, different than the children and families he says are coming to the border in the Rio Grande Valley area – around two hours south of Laredo.

According to data from CBP, border patrol encountered 53,661 migrants in the Laredo region in March. A little more than 50,000 were adults, 38,078 of which were from Mexico.

In the Rio Grande Valley area, border patrol encountered 159,470 migrants in March. While the majority were adults, 52,139 migrant families with young children were encountered as well as 20,964 unaccompanied children.

“You got to be compassionate, you got to be humane,” Cuellar said. “But at the same time, there are certain things you have to enforce, the law. Otherwise, the bad guys will see there's no consequence.”

Pastor Michael Smith, executive director of The Holding Institute, a non-profit in Laredo that provides temporary shelter, as well as food and clothes for migrant families coming to the U.S., said Cuellar is taking a "political risk" for his comments and work on immigration.

"Immigration is not a popular issue, it's still very divisive," Smith said. "(Cuellar) stands the chance to alienate both sides of Congress."

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said Cuellar's voice is important on immigration as are those of other members of Congress who represent border districts. But he said every district — even along the border — is different and the priorities of all the communities are being incorporated into policies.

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"He knows his district," Ruiz said. "Now, it may be different than another person's district, but in his district he knows his district best."

Smith noted Cuellar has fought for non-profits on the border to get reimbursed for housing migrants. At The Holding Institute, Smith said they were only receiving around 10 migrants a week in January. But now in the first week of May, they receive about 250 migrants a day. They've had to expand their facility into an abandoned warehouse across the street to house migrants while still following COVID-19 procedures.

Cuellar helped streamline the process for non-profits, like the Holding Institute, to apply for reimbursement funds through the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, Smith said. But the institute applied for funds two weeks ago and has yet to receive its reimbursement.

"I can tell you that we have reached out to both sides, and he's the only one that responded to us," Smith said.

Cuellar isn’t the only member of Congress representing the border who feels the Biden administration is not listening.

Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents portions of the Rio Grande Valley, including McAllen, expressed the same frustrations Cuellar has had in terms of communication with the White House. Gonzalez said it’s “completely disordered” at the border, where there are still high numbers of migrants coming to the United States.

“I think they should engage us much more, and they don't. I don't know why. We're four months in or five months in, but I'd had at this point ... more communication with the Trump administration than I have so far with the Biden administration.”

Cuellar worked with Obama, Trump administrations

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said this week the number of migrants apprehended in April is expected to still be high.

But the number of children in CBP custody has dropped dramatically over the past several weeks, as the Department of Health and Human Services has rushed to open emergency intake sites to transfer children from the jail-like border patrol facilities. Children are not supposed to be in CBP custody more than 72 hours. For months, the Biden administration struggled to quickly move children out of border patrol custody and into HHS custody, where they are eventually released to family members or sponsors, a process that could take weeks or months.

The Biden administration said Thursday the majority of children are only staying in CBP custody for about 24 hours before being transferred to a facility run by HHS. In late March, there was a daily peak of more than 5,500 children held in CBP custody, a number now down to 600 to 750 children daily. However, there are still roughly 20,000 children in the care of HHS daily.

Past administrations have had to deal with increased numbers of migrants coming to the border, and for decades lawmakers have struggled with a solution to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Henry Cuellar et al. posing for the camera: Henry Cuellar, a Laredo lawyer, professor, and businessman, center, talks with residents in San Antonio, Saturday, Feb. 14, 2004. Cuellar is face U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, longtime friend and political ally, in the March 9 primary election. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) © ERIC GAY, AP Henry Cuellar, a Laredo lawyer, professor, and businessman, center, talks with residents in San Antonio, Saturday, Feb. 14, 2004. Cuellar is face U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, longtime friend and political ally, in the March 9 primary election. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

During the Obama administration, then-Vice President Biden took the lead on trying to find a solution to the root causes as to why migrants were coming to the border – a similar role now-President Biden has assigned to Vice President Kamala Harris. Cuellar said he worked well with Biden during that role, and found allies in the Obama administration that would listen to his concerns.

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One of those people was Jeh Johnson, former Homeland Security secretary during the Obama administration.

Johnson told USA TODAY in statement that Cuellar “gets static from within his own caucus from time to time” as a moderate Democrat. But he noted being from a border district has made Cuellar “attentive to the full contours of the immigration issue.”

Johnson described how he visited Laredo in 2016, and was able to walk a parade route with Cuellar. Johnson noted a few people knew who he was, but Cuellar was greeted “like a returning war hero.”

“During the parade, Henry told me something I never forgot: ‘People down here want us to be fair and compassionate toward migrants, but they also want the border under control,’” Johnson said. “I believe the Nation as a whole is not much different.”

Cuellar said while he disagreed with Trump on his approach to immigration, especially in regards to building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, he still had people in the Trump administration he could talk to like Mark Morgan, a holdover of the Obama administration who served as chief operating officer and acting CBP commissioner in 2019.

But Cuellar isn’t cut off completely from the Biden administration. He said he’s made multiple calls to the White House, and has even spoken to Mayorkas. But he said the message the White House always has for him is: “We have a plan.”

“With all due respect, I keep hearing ‘yeah, we have a plan.’ I’ve seen parts of it. In my opinion, I think they need to get a little bit of input from other folks on that, because what I've seen is not going to stop the flow (of migrants),” Cuellar said.

What Cuellar wants at the border

Cuellar is trying to find legislative solutions to address the situation at the border.

Last month, he co-sponsored a bipartisan bill with Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Texas Republican whose district represents San Antonio, to address overcrowding in border patrol facilities along the border. The bill, which also has a companion bill in the Senate with sponsors Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, calls for creating four new processing facilities for asylum seekers, as well as adding more judges, asylum officers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff and CBP officers along the border.

Małgorzata Niemczyk, Henry Cuellar looking at a cell phone: WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 27: U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) speaks to members of the media June 27, 2019 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. The House has passed a Senate version of a $4.5 billion bill on combating the humanitarian crisis at the southern border. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) © Alex Wong, Getty Images WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 27: U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) speaks to members of the media June 27, 2019 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. The House has passed a Senate version of a $4.5 billion bill on combating the humanitarian crisis at the southern border. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

But the bill has been criticized by some progressive organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Rather than building a fair and humane system for people fleeing danger and seeking protection, the bill instead works within the failed framework of deterrence and detention designed to short-circuit due process,” Jonathan Blazer, director of border strategies at the ACLU, said in a statement.

As the Biden administration continues work on migrants at the border, Congress is trying to push immigration legislation through.

Henry Cuellar et al. standing next to a man in a suit and tie: Henry Cuellar, then Texas secretary of state, after a meeting between the former governor of Chihuahua, Mexico, Patricio Martinez, left, and then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, center, on Jan. 12, 2001, in Austin, Texas. © Harry Cabluck, Associated Press Henry Cuellar, then Texas secretary of state, after a meeting between the former governor of Chihuahua, Mexico, Patricio Martinez, left, and then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, center, on Jan. 12, 2001, in Austin, Texas.

Last month, Cuellar voted in favor of the Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, each bill creating pathways to citizenship for "Dreamers," undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and farmworkers. The bills have yet to be brought up in the Senate.

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Cuellar, a moderate, is also helping bring other moderates in Congress into the fold to help pass immigration reform. Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, last month went down to Laredo to meet with migrants and took a boat tour on the Rio Grande.

During a nearly hour-long press conference at a local pastor’s house, Manchin expressed support for creating a pathway to citizenship, especially for "Dreamers" and setting up ways to allow migrants seeking to come to the United States to apply for asylum from their home countries. Manchin’s remarks were praised by immigration activists, who saw it as a signal legislation could be passed this year.

Manchin, considered the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, has been a key player on Capitol Hill in getting legislation passed in a split chamber.

Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group, said Manchin’s vocal support for immigration reform was “surprising and pleasing.” He noted the backdrop of being in South Texas, alongside Cuellar, was a big deal.

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“Democrats have a pro-immigrant party and they support a pathway to citizenship,” Sharry said. “That ranges from AOC to Joe Manchin.”

Back in Laredo, , Cuellar was ending the last few days he had in his hometown meeting with officials and constituents. The congressman, who spent several weeks in Laredo during a recess in the House, visited the Rio Grande Valley, gave Manchin a tour of Laredo and held meetings with Central American and Mexican officials to discuss the border.

While Cuellar knows some people may think he is attacking the president with his criticisms, he said they are simply the concerns he’s hearing from constituents.

“Listen to the people. Listen to the ranchers. Listen to the NGOs. It’s not only the immigration activist, but you got to listen to border communities,” Cuellar said. “That's all I've been saying. I'm not attacking. I'm not criticizing. I'm just saying here are the numbers and just listen to border communities. You don't have to listen to me, listen to the other people here.”

Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of Biden's harshest critics on the migrant surge, is urging White House to listen to border towns

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