The Democratic mayor of Laredo, Texas, slammed President Joe Biden's immigration policy, alleging that his party has no plan to fix the southern border and has abandoned local communities in favor of massive spending proposals for other interest groups.
Mayor Pete Saenz says that for months many of his city's public services have been forced to focus on providing humanitarian aid, medical services, and transportation for thousands of migrants who pass through Laredo. Those are jobs, he says, the federal government should handle—particularly as the Biden administration loosens immigration restrictions. The added threat of COVID-19 has led Saenz to admit reluctantly that former president Donald Trump's policies benefited Laredo residents.
"We need to truly secure the border," Saenz told the Washington Free Beacon in an exclusive interview. "It was working under Trump, call it whatever you want to call it, but it was working."
As Democrats scramble to pass $3.5 trillion in federal spending on programs ranging from free community college to "achieving a carbon pollution-free power sector," Saenz notes how little of that money will be used to support Customs and Border Protection. The president's budget allocates virtually no additional funds to the agency, which is dealing not only with inflation but also with record numbers of illegal immigrants since Biden took office.
"We're spending billions of dollars on alternative things but immigration isn't given priority. Border Patrol isn't being funded to the extent that Border Patrol has to be funded," Saenz said. "Their workload has increased to three times or four, and yet they're not funded. So, that kind of leads me to think the Democrats have the same mentality [toward the Border Patrol] as defunding law enforcement generally."
Laredo, which has a population of 260,000, is 95-percent Hispanic, making it one of the least diverse cities in the country. The city's concerns over Democrats' immigration politics challenge the conventional wisdom that strong border policies serve the anxieties of a dwindling white population. Republicans in 2020 doubled their turnout in the county in which Laredo sits, a pattern that continued in districts throughout southern Texas.
Biden's immigration policy, Saenz contends, serves neither Americans nor migrants well. He pointed to the squalid Del Rio bridge under which thousands of Haitian migrants lived and the outbreaks of COVID-19 and other diseases in Laredo as evidence that a de facto open borders policy is far from the humanitarian solution. Instead, he said, the Biden administration should work on processing overseas asylum claims—the principle that guided the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy.
"The key, ultimately, is removing the incentive to come to the border and file for asylum. I believe in the asylum process. It needs to be followed or changed. If we don't like the way people are attempting to come, we can have them apply remotely or from either the country of origin or some other place that is close to the country of origin," Saenz said. "No person wants to spend their last penny giving it to the cartels, then risking life and limb travel to try and get all the way to the border. And then there's still the uncertainty that they may not even be granted asylum. At some point, they'll be fugitives."
The border crisis has caused Saenz to reevaluate his own politics. The mayor in 2015 told then-candidate Donald Trump that a large wall across the southern border was not practical. He told NPR in 2019 that Trump's proposal to order the Pentagon to construct fencing in Laredo would be less effective than the "virtual wall" backed by Biden. But, Saenz says, Laredo residents are growing tired of empty promises from Democrats, particularly as the city's fire department is forced to serve as shuttle service for migrants who get dropped off by charities and federal agencies. Saenz has not heard from the Biden administration on any plans for a "virtual wall" or any other measure to stem the tide of illegal immigrants.
"If Biden doesn't come out with implementing a virtual wall, people here will be begging for a wall, a physical structure, simply because of his lack of attention to the border and especially the size of these surges," he said. A wall would "deter or at least buy time, so to speak, for law enforcement."
The Biden administration did not return a request for comment.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency grant for Laredo has eased the burden of paying city employees overtime to relocate migrants. That money came only after the city filed a federal lawsuit that accused the administration of negligence. Customs and Border Protection began transferring hundreds of migrants to the city after processing stations in other parts of Texas reached capacity. The number of migrants who have tested positive for COVID-19 led to targeted shutdowns in Laredo and a lack of hospital beds for city residents—in other words, a government-caused health catastrophe.
For now, the federal government has spared Laredo from facing the ongoing brunt of the migrant crisis. The city's policy of busing out migrants has proven a temporary salve, but no community withstand the constant influx Laredo has seen.
"The border's not secure and hasn't been for a while," he said. "We can't continue this way, and I really haven't seen any measures yet from Washington to remedy this."
Federal immigration authorities are trying to alleviate the pressure on Laredo by redirecting the surge of migrants to other Texas towns. Customs and Border Protection announced the opening of a temporary processing facility 15 miles south of Laredo. Twenty-four hours earlier Saenz had to dispatch local police to assist federal authorities to break up a pair of stash houses in which smugglers had crammed dozens of people. Authorities were shocked to find that one of the locations was allegedly run by a teenager.
Situations like these, Saenz said, are entirely avoidable. "It's really an embarrassment for us as a country now. You know we can do so much better."