National Security

Border Patrol chief says agency does not have complete operational control of border

U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz listens during a news conference in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, on new border enforcement measures to limit unlawful migration, expand pathways for legal immigration, and increase border security. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

U.S. Border Patrol chief Raúl Ortiz said Wednesday the agency does not have complete operational control of the southern border, a comment that was quickly seized upon by lawmakers at a Texas-based committee hearing attended only by Republicans.

The question was posed by House Homeland Security Chair Mark Green (R-Tenn.) holding up a definition of operational control crafted in 2006 that requires “the prevention of all unlawful entries.”

“Based upon the definition you have, sir, up there, no,” Ortiz responded.

The significance of Ortiz’s response for Republicans comes after they’ve repeatedly posed the same question to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who has maintained the border is under control in numerous hearings.

Green was ready with a video clip of Mayorkas making such a comment, asking Ortiz if the secretary was lying — one of several arguments the GOP has pointed to as potential grounds for impeachment.

It was a question Ortiz largely sidestepped, noting that while four of nine southwest border sectors have significant resources, five find themselves facing “an increase in flow and that has caused a considerable strain.”

The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday pushed back on the tone of hearing, with an official noting a more nuanced answer from Mayorkas at a hearing before the Senate in May of last year.

“Well, actually there is a statutory definition which provides…that operational control is [if] no individual and no controlled substance passes through our border. So under that strict definition, this country has never had operational control, but obviously a layer of reasonableness must be applied here,” Mayorkas said.

“And looking at that definition through the lens of reasonableness, we dedicate now 23,000 personnel to the border. We are surging increased personnel, facilities, and other methods of support. And in my opinion, operational controls means maximizing the resources we have to deliver the most effective results.”

The debate over the meaning of operational control rests on The Secure Fence Act of 2006, which set a yardstick experts say was never realistic.

“This language, the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terror, narcotics, and other contraband, I think it’s very

forgiving to use the word aspirational, I mean, it’s unrealistic,” Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told The Hill in February.

Ortiz’s answer, however, garnered gratitude from lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing.

“Chief, you’ve got courage,” Rep. Josh Brecheen (R-Okla.) said. “I see you trying to be respectful and also see you being straightforward and I want to appreciate you for doing that, for you to admit that we don’t have operational control at our southern border.”

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Alejandro Mayorkas Department of Homeland Security Josh Brecheen Mark Green Mark Green Raul Ortiz Raúl Ortiz southern border

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