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

  • May 08, 2021
Annie Rice, Caller-Times-USA TODAY NETWORK

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.

More: Biden administration to begin reunifying families separated by Trump ‘zero tolerance’ policy

“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.” 

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, a Laredo lawyer, professor, and businessman, center, talks with residents in San Antonio, Saturday, Feb. 14, 2004. Cuellar is face U.S. Rep. Ciro…
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.

More: Biden administration cancels military-funded border wall construction, diverts funds to projects

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.

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.

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, 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

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.

From ‘zero tolerance’ to now: How America’s migrant policies have changed in the Trump and Biden years

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.

More: Police help Border Patrol catch migrants, which is bad policy, experts say

“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_

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