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LAREDO, Texas – In a small park nestled between the Rio Grande and an outlet mall, Rep. Henry Cuellar stood under a tree – one of the few spots offering relief from the sun on a 101-degree afternoon in April – as he looked across the border toward Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
The 65-year-old congressman lamented the issues in his community as an increased number of migrant children, families and adults make their way to the U.S.-Mexican border. Cartels recruit American teenagers to help smuggle people into the USA, ranch property is destroyed, and migrants are replacing drugs as the newest and most valuable smuggling commodity, he said.
“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 at our heart, and that is the unaccompanied kids and the family. But what about the darker side? There is a darker side.”
The Democrat has emerged as one of President Joe Biden's harshest critics on the surge of migrants, 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 less than a mile from the border. His warning didn't lead to much effort to address what was happening in South Texas, he said. The administration promised a more humane border policy than President Donald Trump's, 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 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 U.S. southern border has had on communities and migrants. As the Biden administration grapples with the increased number of migrant children, families and adults, Cuellar offered what he sees as a vital message: Listen to border communities.
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.
He routinely pushes back on the administration.
He was the first to show photos of the inside of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas, where children were crowded and lying on mats on the floor under foil blankets. He has been critical of the Biden administration’s message to migrants that it's not a good time to come to the USA "right now." . Cuellar said the border is not under control – despite Biden’s assertion it is.
He disputed photos released by CBP this week showing few migrant children at the once-crowded 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."
'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 drawn criticism for how it's handled the increasing flow of migrants.
Many children and families leave their home countries political and economic turmoil. In Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, families want to escape gang violence and a lack of job opportunities made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. Back-to-back hurricanes last fall displaced many people who lost their jobs. Migrants from Haiti and Cameroon flee political unrest.
Many of the migrant adults tried repeat crossings after being expelled by CBP under Title 42, a Trump-era policy to help 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 wants to see more solutions to help U.S. border communities, where he is concerned about property damage to ranchers.
Cuellar said the Biden administration must do more to penalize gang members who break the law and 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."
Asked in April how the administration works with border communities, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said local governments and nongovernmental organizations play "an incredibly important role." She noted some governments help with coronavirus testing and pay for hotels to house migrant families who test positive.
"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 news briefing.
Asked about Cuellar's criticisms, the White House said it's working with 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. An international bridge connects the two downtowns, and the towering border wall is not in sight.
Cuellar, a Laredo native, still lives there with 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 crossed into the campus and tried to blend in with students to evade the Border Patrol. The fence, he said, was mostly for aesthetic purposes and did not keep migrants from coming to Laredo.
Mexican culture and identity are prevalent in Laredo, a city of more than 262,000 residents. According to the Census Bureau, 95.4% of residents identify as Latino or Hispanic.
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).
Amid the shops, restaurants and homes in downtown Laredo, there are hundreds of migrant families, many led by single parents who have children under the age of 7. A nonprofit group feeds them, clothes them and gives them a place to stay until they are able to travel to their family or sponsors in the state or elsewhere in the USA.
Along the border are several ranches, where Cuellar said migrants cross.
He draws a distinction between those seeking to enter the USA in Laredo versus other points of entry.
He said many of the migrants are adult men from Mexico who are apprehended in Laredo and the surrounding areas, different from the children and families he said come to the Rio Grande Valley area – about two hours south of Laredo.
According to data from CBP, the 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, the Border Patrol encountered 159,470 migrants in March. Though 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 nonprofit Holding Institute in Laredo, which provides temporary shelter, as well as food and clothes, for migrant families, said Cuellar takes a "political risk" over 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.
"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 nonprofit groups on the border to get reimbursed for housing migrants. He said the Holding Institute received about 10 migrants a week in January. In the first week of May, it received about 250 migrants a day. Thefacility had to expand into an abandoned warehouse across the street to house migrants while following COVID-19 procedures.
Cuellar helped streamline the process for nonprofit groups, such as the Holding Institute, to apply for reimbursement funds through the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, Smith said. 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 says 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.
“I think they should engage us much more, and they don't,” he said. “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 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 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 into HHS custody, from which they are released to family members or sponsors, a process that could take weeks or months.
The Biden administration said Thursday the majority of children stay in CBP custody for only 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 down to 600 to 750 children daily. There are roughly 20,000 children in the care of HHS daily.
Past administrations had to deal with increased numbers of migrants coming to the border, and lawmakers have struggled for decades to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
During the Obama administration, Vice President Biden took the lead on trying to find a solution to the root causes of the immigrant influx – a similar role to what President Biden assigned Vice President Kamala Harris. Cuellar said he worked well with Biden and found allies in the Obama administration that would listen to his concerns.
One of those people was Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security secretary during the Obama administration.
Johnson told USA TODAY that Cuellar “gets static from within his own caucus from time to time” as a moderate Democrat, but 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 walked a parade route with Cuellar. Johnson said 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 that although he disagreed with Trump on his approach to immigration, especially in regards to building a wall on the border, he had people in the Trump administration he could talk to, such as Mark Morgan, a holdover from the Obama administration who served as chief operating officer and acting CBP commissioner in 2019.
Cuellar isn’t cut off completely from the Biden administration. He said he’s made multiple calls to the White House and has spoken to Mayorkas. 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 tries to find legislative solutions to address the situation at the border.
Last month, he co-sponsored a bipartisan bill with Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, whose district represents San Antonio, to address overcrowding in Border Patrol facilities. The bill – which has a companion measure in the Senate sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. – calls for creating four processing facilities for asylum seekers, as well as adding judges, asylum officers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff and CBP officers along the border.
The legislation has been criticized by some liberal 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.
Last month, Cuellar voted in favor of the Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, bills that would create pathways to citizenship for "Dreamers," undocumented immigrants brought to the USA as children, and farmworkers. The bills have yet to be brought up in the Senate.
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Cuellar is trying to bring other moderates in Congress into the fold to help pass an immigration overhaul. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., went down to Laredo last month to meet with migrants and took a boat tour on the Rio Grande.
During a nearly hourlong news conference at a pastor’s house, Manchin expressed support for creating a pathway to citizenship, especially for "Dreamers," and setting up ways to allow migrants to apply for asylum from their home countries. Immigration activists praised Manchin’s remarks, seeing them as a signal legislation could be passed this year.
Manchin, 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 South Texas, alongside Cuellar, was a big deal.
“Democrats have a pro-immigrant party, and they support a pathway to citizenship,” Sharry said.
In Laredo, where Cuellar stayed for several weeks during a House recess, he spent the final days of his break meeting with officials and constituents in his hometown. The congressman visited the Rio Grande Valley, gave Manchin a tour of Laredo and held meetings with Central American and Mexican officials to discuss the border.
Cuellar knows some people may think he is attacking the president, but he said he's simply relaying the concerns he hears 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: Henry Cuellar, critic of Biden on immigration, wants border town help