There is a humanitarian and national security crisis at our southern border,” announced Republican Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson (above) in an April 9 hearing titled “Unprecedented Migration at the US Southern Border: Perspectives from the Frontline,” before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
And for lawmakers—Republican and Democratic alike—as well as testifiers, it’s also a drug crisis, defined as “one of the greatest criminal drug threats to the United States” by the Mexican Transnational Crime Organizations (MTCO).
Sen. Johnson’s opening remarks as the Committee’s chair were bound together with the testimony of leadership from Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) by a common lament: “The agencies charged with securing our borders have been transformed into a humanitarian relief mission.”
Data do show in a major spike in apprehensions of people that CBP and ICE were not designed to handle: asylum-seekers, families and unaccompanied children. Though not record-breaking, February 2019 saw 66,450 Southwest border apprehensions—the highest monthly total in nine years. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 61 percent of those apprehended so far in 2019 have been family units or unaccompanied children. CBP predicts that April alone will see 27,000 children, both with parents and unaccompanied, entering the US immigration system. As Vox explains, they can’t just be detained and deported like adults arriving alone—meaning “the system is overloaded with people it wasn’t designed to handle.”
That’s why Sen. Johnson complained, “Congress did not establish CBP and Border Patrol to care for children.” His characterization of CBP’s “care” comes as children are caged, held by private contractors in spaces unauthorized for this use and separated from their parents—actions widely recognized to cause irreparable psychological damage.
For Sen. Johnson, having to focus on “caring” for people who are mostly fleeing the disastrous effects of climate change and violence sparked by US drug policies “makes drug smuggling even easier and more lucrative.”
In a hearing held five days prior, Mark Morgan, the US Border Patrol chief from 2016 to 2017, stated that “More drugs and criminal aliens are illegally crossing into the US, putting American citizens at increased risk, as agents are consumed with caring for families and children.”
While border security officials hold that the drug supply is threatening Americans (whereas harm reductionists would blame prohibition itself), Democratic Senator Gary C. Peters from Michigan is alarmed at how CBP is treating the children in the first place.
“We know that the trauma of detaining young children and separating them from their parents puts these children at risk of irreparable harm,” said Sen. Peters. “I have asked multiple officials from this administration who have testified before this committee, ‘how long is too long to detain a child?’ I have yet to receive a real answer.”
It’s unclear how President Trump’s border warriors—emboldened by the recent ousting of Department of Homeland Security chief Kristjen Nielsen for not being “tough” enough—would reply. But Greg Cherundolo, the DEA’s Office of Global Enforcement Operations chief, gives an assessment of the decades-long, trillion-dollar US drug war that is drenched in unintentional irony: “The fight against drug abuse is a generations-long struggle; it will not be completed overnight.”
CBP representatives attested to this on April 9: “We have dedicated every available resource to stop the flow of illegal migrants and dangerous drugs into the United States.” They continued: “Targeting the world’s most prolific and dangerous drug traffickers is a dynamic and evolving mission, and with it comes myriad challenges, but throughout our history, DEA has met those challenges and produced impressive results.”
These “impressive results” include 70,000 annual overdose deaths in the United States.
But for Rep. Johnson, it comes down to the country’s alleged “virtual open border for families and children”—and drugs. Vigorously speaking with his hands, he issued a call to action: “If you do not support this new reality of open borders, work with me to fix our flawed immigration system.”
Whatever that means.