“My only question is, what are [Border Patrol agents] supposed to do, just stand by and let people go by? If there was any conduct that was done that’s not according to standards, of course that’s going to be looked at,” said Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat. “We have to be careful that we don’t just automatically just blame Border Patrol. They’re trying to do their job as best as they can, and if there’s an issue, we’ll investigate.”
Cuellar and McCaul, an Austin Republican, made the comments during an interview at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival that aired Wednesday. The interview came after images and videos of Border Patrol agents herding Haitian migrants, including one video of an agent swinging his reins toward a migrant, circulated widely on social media and drew criticism.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas denied that agents whipped anyone, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki denounced the agent’s actions.
In Haiti, a presidential assassination in July and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake last month have led to chaos on the ground, causing many to flee to the U.S.
In response, McCaul repeatedly urged for the revival of the Trump-era “remain in Mexico” policy, which forces people seeking asylum at the border to stay in Mexico. In August, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the policy must be restored. Advocacy groups and immigration lawyers have said doing so has life-threatening consequences for migrants and also would not apply to the majority of Haitians.
“We have to get back to the policy where they’re not in the United States while the asylum claim is being looked at,” McCaul said.
The Biden administration is deporting migrants on flights to Haiti and other countries.
Cuellar said he doesn’t think Haitians who have arrived at the border necessarily qualify for asylum.
“What does the asylum law call for? Does it cover a political assassination? Does it cover an earthquake? No. It’s got to be a persecution based on certain factors by the state,” Cuellar said. “It doesn’t even cover violence.”
While both congressmen denounced the separation of children from their families that occurred during the Trump administration, they also asserted the importance of deterrence policies at the border to try to keep migrants from leaving their countries.
“You’ve got to have some sort of deterrence,” Cuellar said. “Otherwise, your laws don’t mean anything.”
But deterrence policies have failed since their implementation, including the “prevention through deterrence” strategy that has existed since the 1990s and led to more people dying while trying to migrate to the U.S. rather than stopping them from coming, according to the Undocumented Migration Project, an advocacy group that researches border crossings.
McCaul said a more permanent solution to increased border crossings could come from addressing the economic and political instability in developing countries. He referred to the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, which provides financial assistance to emerging markets, as a possible solution.
“Part of the problem is getting to the root cause,” McCaul said. “The earthquakes and political instability in Haiti has led to this problem, and we have provided financial assistance. We do that, as Americans. We’re very generous with that.”
The all-virtual 2021 Texas Tribune Festival is happening now through Sept. 25. Join as big names from politics, public policy and the media share what’s next for Texas and beyond. Explore live and on-demand programming, including dozens of free events, at tribfest.org.
Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn't cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.