LAREDO, Texas – In a small park nestled between the Rio Grande River and an outlet mall, Rep. Henry Cuellar stood under a tree — one of the few spots offering relief from the sun on this 101-degree April afternoon — as he looked across the border towards Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
The 65-year-old congressman, donning a tan button-down shirt and matching pants, lamented about the issues he’s seen in his community as an increased number of migrant children, families and adults make their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. American teenagers are being recruited by cartels to help smuggle people into the United States, ranch property is being destroyed, and now migrants are replacing drugs as the newest and most valuable commodity to smuggle into the country, 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 out or 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 coming to the border, 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 located less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border. But his warning didn’t lead to much effort to address what was happening on the ground in South Texas, he said. For its part the administration has promised a more humane border policy than former President Donald Trump, focused on reuniting families, housing migrants so they don’t have to make a dangerous trek home, and stemming the flow from Central America.
“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 U.S.-Mexico 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 United States’ southern border has had on communities and migrants. And as the Biden administration continues to grapple with the increased number of migrant children, families and adults, Cuellar has offered what he sees as a vital message for Biden: 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.
And he routinely pushes back on the administration.
He was the first to show photos of what the inside of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas, looked like, with children shown crowded and lying on mats on the floor with foil blankets. He has been critical of the Biden administration’s message to migrants early on, when it told migrants it’s not a good time to come to the U.S. “right now.” . And Cuellar still says the border is not under control — despite Biden’s recent assertion it is.
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Most recently, he disputed photos released by CBP this week showing few migrant children at the once-crowded border 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.”
The Biden administration came into office eager to undo Trump’s zero-tolerance policy on the border, but it’s instead drawn criticism for how it’s handled the increasing flow of migrants.
Many children and families are fleeing their home countries because of political and economic turmoil. In nations like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, families are fleeing gang violence and suffering from a lack of job opportunities made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. Back-to-back hurricanes last fall caused many families to become displaced and lose their jobs. There also migrants coming from other countries, like Haiti and Cameroon, who are fleeing political unrest.
A smuggler paddles a small inflatable raft across the Rio Grande river from Mexico into the U.S. carrying migrant families in Roma, Texas, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
DARIO LOPEZ-MILLS, AP
The Biden administration over the past several months has seen dramatically high numbers of migrants coming to the border, though many of the migrant adults trying to come to the United States have been repeat crossings of people expelled by Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allows CBP to expel migrants to 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 says. He wants to see more solutions to help border communities in the United States, where he says there is a rise in cartels recruiting young Americans and is concerned about property damage to ranchers.
Cuellar said the Biden administration must do more to penalize migrants and gang members who break the law, and for migrants who don’t go through the proper process to seek asylum.