WASHINGTON — At the first field hearing of the new session, expert witnesses called on the GOP-led House Homeland Security Committee to pass legislation to support agencies working on immigration and border security.

Raul Ortiz, the chief of U.S. border patrol for the Department of Homeland Security, said that the border is not under the agency’s operational control due to a “policy crisis.” However, despite scrutiny from Republican congressmen, he maintained that this problem has existed since he was a deputy chief almost 10 years ago and is not unique to President Joe Biden’s administration. 

“Today’s border environment requires a whole of government solution… which could be in the form of legislative or policy adjustments,” Ortiz said. “And that is where I ask for your help. We need more options.”

While House Republicans promised to bring immigration legislation onto the floor within the first few weeks of the new session, they have failed to do so thus far. 

Steven Cagen, the assistant director for Countering Transnational Organized Crime Homeland Security Investigations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency needs additional infrastructure to continue drug seizures along the border. While Biden and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s current approach includes increased funding for ICE and Customs and Border Protection, Congress’s deadlock has stalled additional funding.

“HSI is dedicated to using its broad and unique authorities to stop illicit drugs at every critical location in the supply chain,” Cagen said. “HSI will need additional staffing to support complex investigations and prosecutions to dismantle TCO threats to the homeland.

According to CBP data, there were almost 2.4 million encounters on the southern border in 2022, the highest annual total on record. This number was about 650,000 more than 2021 and over five times more than 2020, which saw a dip in migration that experts attribute to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Committee members asked Ortiz whether he thought this sharp increase could be attributed to Biden’s campaign promises around immigration. Ortiz, who has worked in border patrol since 1991 and has been chief of the agency since 2021, did not answer affirmatively. 

He said they also “had some vulnerabilities” on the southern border in 2019 under President Donald Trump’s DHS. He said he did not agree with the actions taken in response to influxes in migration during that time period, such as the family separation policy. 

“Separating families was a significant challenge for our organization,” Ortiz said. “And I will tell you that once again, there’s got to be another way to solve some of the issues that we’re faced with right now.”

The hearing took place at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas. Chairman Mark Green (R-Tenn.) said this trip to the Rio Grande Valley, a region on the U.S.-Mexico border, was meant to expose committee members to the needs of on-the-ground border security agents. 

However, in press releases leading up to the trip, Republican congressmen said the hearing was meant to “examine Secretary Mayorkas’ Border Crisis.” Democrats on the committee did not attend because of the political skew of the hearing. But the chairman condemned his colleagues across the aisle: “You can’t have bipartisanship if the other side fails to show up for their duty.”

“We came to Texas for this hearing for several reasons: to get members of Congress and their staff out of the cubicles back in Washington and down here to the border to see it for ourselves,” Green said. “You cannot read about being a doctor and then go do brain surgery.”