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In Nogales, Gallego & Mayes push for federal border bill

Arizona Attorney General Chris Mays criticized “extremists” in Washington, D.C., and was in Nogales on Monday with Rep. Ruben Gallego and Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway to promote border legislation that is blocked in the Senate.

The long-awaited bill was the first major attempt to rewrite America's immigration system in decades. It included funding for scanners to block fentanyl at border crossings and millions of dollars in compensation to local governments that harbor asylum seekers. But despite months of bipartisan negotiations and support from the Border Patrol Council, a union for Border Patrol agents, Republicans killed the bill after former President Trump called it “terrible.”

“Extremists in Congress must put politics aside and pass the budget and border security reform bills currently sitting idle in Congress,” said Gallego, the Democratic candidate for Arizona's vacant Senate seat. “Every minute we wait means more fentanyl deaths, more strain on emergency responders and more potential drug release on our streets – the last thing any small community wants.”

Gallego launched his campaign last year and will face one of two Republican candidates in the fall — failed gubernatorial candidate Kali Lake or Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb.

Speaking outside the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office building overlooking Nogales, Arizona, Hathaway said the “border issue” is on everyone's mind, but added that Nogales and its sister city in Sonora are part of a larger community known as “Ambos Nogales.”

“It's a symbiotic relationship. We depend on Mexico and Mexico depends on us,” he said.

The sheriff noted that billions of dollars of trade with Mexico passes through Arizona's ports, including about 60 percent of the state's winter produce. The Senate border bill includes funding for more Border Patrol agents and asylum agents, but also includes sweeping reforms to the work permit process. Hathaway praised those proposals.

“Immigration judges, paralegals, judges' clerks, these were in the bill,” he said. “And unfortunately, for political reasons, the bill never ended up moving forward,” he said. “The bill contained solutions that all political groups were looking for, but the bill got sidetracked and never moved forward. We're here today to look for solutions, not to pull political stunts for political reasons.”

“Pure politics”

“We need to recognize how we got to this point,” Gallego said. Last year, as the Biden administration moved to repeal Title 42 – a Trump-era order that allowed U.S. Customs and Border Protection to quickly expel people traveling through countries hit by the COVID-19 pandemic – law enforcement officials, including the Border Patrol, warned they were “not equipped” to handle the influx of people coming across the border, he said.

Title 42 has been widely criticized by advocates who say its use returns asylum seekers to dangerous situations, and the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments about its legality at the time the White House ended the policy.

Gallego said he has urged the Biden administration to implement reforms and provide resources to local communities, but that funding for those resources is drying up, even as Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector detained 10,500 people last week. “That's why a month ago, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled the most comprehensive border security patch we've seen in years.”

“Less than a day after this bill was announced, extremists in Congress and across the country moved quickly to block it,” Gallego said. “Not because it's a bad bill, or because it didn't accomplish everything they wanted it to, but for purely political reasons. A month and a half after this bill was blocked, Arizona communities continue to see an increase in migrants arriving at the border.”

“It's shameful to put politics above the ordinary people of Arizona,” Gallego said.

Last month, Pima County Executive Jan Lesher warned of a “growing homelessness problem” and told the county's Board of Supervisors that she would be forced to stop sheltering asylum seekers by March 31 (Easter Sunday) after federal funding dried up. Over the past five years, Pima County has used federal funds to shelter 423,398 people released by CBP as part of legitimate asylum proceedings.

Pima County officials have repeatedly told Washington, D.C., that they need more money to run shelters, which cost about $1 million a week to serve as many as 1,000 people each day, but Congress has so far refused to provide funding this year for the Shelter and Services Program, which is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The border bill included $1 billion to cover FEMA programs.

Already the county has moved to scale back its role as a respite for asylum seekers, warning that as many as 450 people a day could be released directly onto Tucson's streets next month.

“Madness” and “Shame”

Attorney General Mayes followed Gallego's lead by focusing on funding for scanners to intercept narcotics at U.S. ports.

“Arizona is flooded with cheap, highly lethal fentanyl. In recent years, more than half of the fentanyl seized in the United States has been seized in Arizona,” Mays said.

“Unfortunately, extremists in Congress continue to block legislation that would fund border security and keep fentanyl out of our communities,” she said. “I thank Rep. Gallego and Sheriff Hathaway for their leadership on this issue. Together, we can confront this crisis, secure our border, and protect Arizonans.”

The White House has been pushing for non-intrusive scanners at the Nogales border crossing, but for now federal officials have refrained from installing the screening technology since a bipartisan border bill collapsed. Earlier this month, Acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller led NBC News on a tour of the Nogales port of entry and said the agency has purchased scanners to detect drugs and other contraband in vehicles, but still needs $300 million to install them.

“We have technology sitting in a warehouse that's been tested, but it would take about $300 million to actually get that technology on the ground,” Miller said. He told NBC News. “It's very frustrating.”

Authorities have several scanners to quickly screen cars and trucks. Vehicles with “anomalies” are sent to additional screening areas, where federal agents interview drivers and passengers and search the vehicle more closely. CBP said the system allows agents to “screen or inspect a significant portion of the commercial traffic flow while facilitating the flow of legitimate commerce, cargo, and passengers.”

After Miller's interview, Mays told Arizona lawmakers she was “shocked” to hear the scanners were sitting unused because “Congress didn't fund the installation of the equipment.”

“Arizona is in the midst of a fentanyl crisis, and this inaction is irresponsible and negligent at best,” she wrote in the letter March 8. “As Arizona's Attorney General, I have used the authority of my office to protect our state's residents from the fentanyl epidemic and expect the Legislature to do the same. I call on you to put politics aside and work with my colleagues to fund the deployment of this critical technology.”

She said nearly half of the fentanyl seized by CBP in 2022 and 2023 was seized at Arizona ports of entry. “Drug cartels are using our ports of entry and borders as their own post offices to send fentanyl to other parts of the country,” she said. “And this is happening while high-tech scanning equipment that could help stop the flow of fentanyl sits unused in government warehouses.”

“Imagine having high-tech scanners that can more efficiently x-ray vehicles and detect fentanyl just sitting there unused taking up space,” she said. “This is insanity and shameful because extremists in Congress have decided that nothing is more politically expedient than working on solutions that will save lives.”

Mayes added that she has spoken to Vice President Kamala Harris about the need for border scanners. She said the scanners are in the bill and the equipment is “ready to go.” But she said she was “shocked” to hear reports that the scanners “cannot be put to good use” because Congress hasn't provided the funding for them. She called it “absurd.”

“It is unjust for the Republican majority in Congress to tear up a bipartisan border agreement,” Mayes added.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva joined the Democratic Party in My letter Congressional leaders called the failure to install the scanners “highly troubling.”

“Far too many states and constituents are affected by the fentanyl crisis, one of the most dangerous and deadly drugs in our nation's history,” he said, adding that Department of Homeland Security statistics show more than 90 percent of seized fentanyl is recovered at U.S. ports, primarily in vehicles driven by U.S. citizens.

“It's clear that increasing inspections and staffing at ports of entry is the primary way to address this problem,” he said. “When Homeland Security officers have the technology and personnel to inspect commercial and personal vehicles entering the United States, it saves lives. Congress has directed Homeland Security to inspect 100 percent of cargo and vehicles entering the United States for contraband, narcotics, and other illegal items,” he said. “To ensure that Homeland Security meets this obligation, we need adequate funding now and in the future.”

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