In Nogales, Gallego & Mayes push for federal border bill

Criticizing “extremists” in Washington D.C., Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes joined U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego and Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway in Nogales on Monday to push for the Senate’s obstructed border bill.

The long-awaited bill was the first major attempt to rewrite the nation’s immigration frameworks in decades. It included funding for scanners to help interdict fentanyl at border crossings, as well as millions to reimburse local governments for sheltering asylum seekers. However, despite months of bipartisan negotiations and the support of the National Border Patrol Council union for BP agents, congressional Republicans killed the bill after ex-president Trump called it “horrendous.” 

“Extremists in Congress must put politics aside and pass the funding and
border security reform bill that is right now sitting idly in
Congress,” said Gallego, the Democratic candidate for Arizona’s now-open Senate seat. “Every minute we wait means more fentanyl deaths,
more strain our first responders, and the looming possibility of street
releases—something that no small community wants.”

Gallego launched his campaign last year and he will face one of two Republicans in the fall—either failed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake or Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb.

Outside the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department building overlooking Nogales, Ariz., Hathaway said the “border issue” was on everyone’s mind, but added Nogales and its sister city in Sonora are part of broader community known as “Ambos Nogales.”

“It’s a symbiotic relationship. We depend on Mexico, Mexico depends on us,” he said. 

The sheriff noted billions of dollars in trade pass through Arizona’s ports with Mexico, including nearly 60 percent of fresh produce during the winter. While the Senate’s border bill included funding for more Border Patrol agents and asylum officers, it also included sweeping reforms to the work permit process. Hathaway praised these proposals.

“The immigration judges, the paralegals, the administrative staff for the judges, that was in the bill,” he said. “And, I’m sad to say that for political reasons, that bill never went forward,” he said. “It had the solutions that all political groups have been asking for when it was sidetracked and it didn’t go forward. Now we’re here today, not for political reasons not to do political stunts, but to look for solutions.”

‘Just pure politics’

“We need to recognize how got here,” said Gallego. He said last year, as the Biden administration move to wind down Title 42—a Trump-era order that allowed U.S. Customs and Border Protection to quickly expel people if they traveled through a country hit by the COVID-19 pandemic—law enforcement officials, including Border Patrol warned they were “unequipped” to deal with an influx of people crossing the border.

Title 42 was widely criticized by advocates because its use sent asylum seekers back to dangerous circumstances, and the Supreme Court was close to hearing arguments over its legality when the White House ended the policy.

Gallego said he pushed the Biden administration to implement reforms and provide resources for local communities, but funding for those resources are drying up even as Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector took 10,500 people in custody just last week. “That’s why one month ago, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled the most comprehensive border security patch we’ve seen in years.”

“Less than one day after this bill was announced, extremists in Congress and across the country quickly mobilized to block the package,” Gallego said. “Not because it was a bad bill, not because the bill didn’t do everything they wanted a bill to do, but because of just pure politics. In the month and a half since that package was blocked Arizona communities continue to see increased arrivals at our border.” 

“Putting politics ahead of every everyday Arizonans is shameful,” Gallego said.

Last month, Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher warned of “homelessness on
steroids” and told the Board of Supervisors the county will be forced to
stop sheltering asylum seekers by March 31 — on Easter Sunday — after
federal funding is exhausted. For the last five years, Pima County has used federal funding to shelter 423,398 people after they were released by CBP as part of the legal asylum process.

Pima County officials have repeatedly told Washington D.C. they need additional funds to cover shelter operations—which cost around $1 million per week to take in as many as 1,000 people arriving each day. However, Congress has so far refused to fund the Shelter and Services Program, managed by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, for this year.

The border bill would have included $1 billion to cover the FEMA program.

Already, the county has moved to wind down their role in providing temporary respite for asylum seekers, and warned next month around 450 people could be released directly to Tucson’s streets per day.

‘Insane’ & ‘shameful’

AG Mayes followed Gallego and focused on the bill’s funding for scanners to interdict narcotics at U.S. ports.

“Arizona has been flooded with cheap and deadly fentanyl – with over half of the fentanyl seized in the United States in recent years being seized in Arizona,” said Mayes.

“Sadly, extremists in Congress continue to obstruct legislation that would better fund border security and keep fentanyl out of our communities,” she said. “I am grateful for Rep. Gallego and Sheriff Hathaway’s leadership on this issue. If we work together, we can combat this crisis, secure our border, and protect the people of Arizona.”

While the White House has pushed to install more non-intrusive scanners at border crossings in Nogales, the collapse of the bipartisan border bill has so-far kept federal officials from installing the inspection technology. Earlier this month, Troy Miller,  the acting commissioner of CBP, took NBC News on a tour of the Nogales port of entry and said the agency purchased scanners to detect drugs and other contraband in vehicles, but still needed $300 million to install them. 

“We do have technology that’s in the warehouse that has been tested. But we need approximately $300 million (to) actually put the technology in the ground,” Miller told NBC News. “It’s extremely frustrating.”

The agency has some scanners used to quickly scrutinize cars and trucks. Vehicles with “anomalies” are sent to an additional inspection area, where federal officials can interview drivers and passengers and dig through vehicles. CBP has said the systems allow officers to “screen or examine a larger portion of the stream of commercial traffic while facilitating the flow of legitimate trade, cargo, and passengers.”

After Miller’s interview, Mayes told Arizona’s congressional delegation she was “shocked” to hear the scanners sit unused because “Congress has failed to provide funding to install the equipment.”

“With Arizona in the midst of a fentanyl crisis, this inaction is irresponsible and negligent at best,” she wrote in a letter on March 8. “As the attorney general of Arizona, I am using the authority of my office to protect its citizens from the fentanyl epidemic, and I expect the same from Congress. I am calling on you to set aside politics and work with your colleagues to fund the installation of this critical technology.”

In 2022 and 2023, nearly half the fentanyl seized by CBP was intercepted at Arizona’s ports of entry, she said. “The cartels are using our ports of entry and the border as their personal postal service to send fentanyl to the rest of the nation,” she said. “And this is happening while high tech scanning equipment that could help stop the flow of fentanyl is sitting unused in government warehouses.”

“Picture that, high-tech scanners that can x-ray vehicles and discover fentanyl more efficiently are sitting unused just taking up space,” she said. “It is insane and it is shameful. Because extremists in Congress have decided that nothing is better for them politically than working on solutions that would save lives.”

Mayes added she spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris and pushed the need for scanners on the border. Installation of the scanners were included in the bill and the equipment, Mayes said, is “ready to go.” However, she said she was “shocked” by reports the scanners “cannot be put to good use because Congress has failed to provide funding to install the equipment. It is beyond ridiculous.

“It’s unconscionable for the Republican majority in Congress to sink the bipartisan border agreement,” Mayes added.

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva joined fellow Democrats and sent his own letter to congressional leaders calling the failure to install scanners “incredibly troublesome.”

“Far too many of our states and constituents are being impacted by the fentanyl crisis that is one of the most dangerous and lethal drugs in our nation’s history,” he said, adding that DHS figures show more than 90 percent of the fentanyl intercepted is picked up at U.S. ports. in vehicles driven primarily by U.S. citizens.

“It is clear enhancing screening and staffing resources for our ports of entry is a primary way we can combat this issue,” he said. “When our DHS personnel have the technology and resources to inspect commercial and private vehicles for illicit contraband as they enter the U.S., lives are saved. Congress has directed DHS to ultimately scan 100 percent of cargo and vehicles entering the U.S. for contraband, drugs, and other illicit items,” he said. “For DHS to fulfill this obligation, it needs to have adequate funding now and into the future.”