WASHINGTON – Democrats slammed Republicans at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Tuesday for failing to address gun violence in Mexico, which is a root cause of human trafficking at the southern U.S. border. 

This criticism comes amid a historic increase in border crossings. During the 2023 fiscal year, over 2.4 million people were apprehended at the southern border, according to the New York Times. The previous record was 2.3 million apprehensions in 2022. 

As border crossings rise, both Democrats and Republicans expressed concern on Tuesday over the danger of human trafficking, when migrants are illegally and involuntarily sold for prostitution, forced labor, or organ sale. 

In July, Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., and Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., introduced a bill to tackle human trafficking by increasing local law enforcement cooperation between the U.S., Mexico and Central and South America. 

Despite previous bipartisan support for human trafficking prevention, Democrats and Republicans seized the opportunity at Tuesday’s hearing to place blame on each other for the unfolding humanitarian crisis. 

Reps. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., and Robert Garcia, D-Calif., said Republicans’ inability to prevent the smuggling of American-made firearms has given Mexican cartels a monopoly of power, which has enabled human trafficking. CBS News reported in September that between 250,000 and 1 million Mexican cartel weapons originated in the U.S. Additionally, 85% of firearms used for violent crimes in Mexico can be traced back to American manufacturers. 

“We’ve had witness after witness come before this committee and testify that the Mexican drug cartels are able to control the border and human trafficking because of their access to guns,” Goldman said. 

Goldman touted his own bill introduced on Tuesday called the “Dismantling Cartels Act. The legislation aims to increase collaboration between agencies in Mexico and the U.S. to end firearms smuggling.

“My Republican colleagues repeatedly sit here hearing after hearing, pointing fingers at (President Joe Biden’s) administration for all the border security issues,” Goldman said. “Well, here’s an opportunity to actually do something about it.”

The Biden administration has created policies to reduce the number of illegal border crossings. However, since 2022, migrant arrests have fallen by 200,000. 

At Tuesday’s hearing, Republicans said the president’s border policies have encouraged violence at the border and have failed to prevent human trafficking. 

“The Biden administration has unwittingly facilitated cartel operations at the southern border, and as a result, we face a human trafficking crisis,” Higgins said. “Cartels have been emboldened, and migrants have been victimized.”

Terry Fitzpatrick, the director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, pushed back against this Republican rhetoric. He said migration-related trafficking is not limited to undocumented immigrants. Fitzpatrick also criticized Republicans’ claim that Biden has “failed” to secure the border.

“If zero contraband and zero undocumented migrants means ‘secure,’ then the border has never been secure in the history of the U.S., and it will never be.” Fitzpatrick said. 

To combat human trafficking, Fitzpatrick urged Congress to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which focuses on the protection of victims, prevention methods, and prosecution of offenders. The bill was first passed in 2000 but has not been reauthorized since 2018. 

Pablo Villeda, a regional president of the International Justice Mission, an anti-human trafficking organization, agreed the bill should be reauthorized. Villeda also suggested investing in local law enforcement for impoverished Latin American communities. Lack of law and order, Villeda said, contributes to a cycle of violence that allows criminals to avoid punishment.

“We must look to the source, and then work to address factors that drive people to abandon their communities,” Villeda said. 

Fitzpatrick urged Congress to continue funding “holistic” approaches to border security, including the hiring of more social workers, asylum officers and immigration judges to ensure the U.S. remains a place where migrants are protected from violence of all forms. 

“Migrants not only seek opportunity in the U.S., they seek safety and freedom,” Fitzpatrick said. “Our answer to those fleeing forced labor and human trafficking must not be to go back.”