U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are asking President Joe Biden to appoint former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to a special executive position to manage the border crisis.
"We write to you with a sense of urgency regarding the escalating situation at our southern border," Cuellar and Graham wrote in a letter to Biden and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. "In doing so, we hope to demonstrate that this bicameral concern is neither partisan nor political. To solve the growing problem, we request a special executive appointment for border issues to ensure sufficient federal resources are allocated to overburdened U.S. border communities and to recommend changes to our immigration policies as we work to regain control of the border."
During a press briefing Friday, Cuellar said the Biden administration needs to listen to border communities and border patrol officials dealing with an influx of refugees, immigrants and migrants (RIMs), many of whom have tested positive for COVID-19 and have been released into local communities.
Cueller's district lies along the Mexican border encompassing part of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV). The RGV border patrol sector has had the greatest number of encounters and apprehensions of RIMs in Texas. It saw a 478% increase in encounters with people entering the U.S. illegally from June 2021 compared to June 2020. This past week, nearly 20,000 people came through the RGV sector alone, adding to the more than one million who have already come through the entire southern border this year.
The surge at the border, Cueller says, has resulted in the temporary shutdown of Catholic Charities; nearly 70 border agents have tested positive for COVID-19 in the RGV sector alone; and 233 hospital beds are now occupied in the local area. More than 27% of unaccompanied children deported this week also tested positive for COVID-19, with Brownsville experiencing a 15% positivity rate, the letter states.
The congressman called on the Biden administration to pause admitting RIMs and releasing them into the community to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and to ensure the safety of local residents and border patrol agents. The White House has not responded to his requests.
"They need help down there on the border," Cuellar said. "Something has to change when it comes to border immigration issues."
Earlier this year, Biden appointed Vice President Kamala Harris as "border czar." Harris since then has been heavily criticized for her approach. When in El Paso last month, her focus was on diplomatic relations with Central American countries, not border security.
Johnson served as Homeland Security secretary from 2013 to 2017 under the Obama administration. When asked about taking such a job or if he had had any discussions with Graham, Cueller or the Biden administration about it, Johnson said, "I have no comment."