People on the terrorist watch list have been nabbed trying to cross the border as part of the latest surge of migrants, congressional Republicans revealed during a trip to the border Monday.
They said agents reported having caught migrants from Yemen, Iran and Sri Lanka amid the much larger numbers of Haitians, Central Americans and others.
“Individuals that they have on the watch list for terrorism are now starting to exploit the southern border,” Rep. John Katko of New York, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said as he stood near a section of border wall in El Paso, Texas.
He was part of a delegation of House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, that was visiting to take stock of the migrant surge and to pressure President Biden for a change in course.
Mr. McCarthy dubbed the situation “beyond a crisis.”
Record numbers of unaccompanied juvenile migrants are now mired in border holding cells, and the flow across the border is growing more intense.
Mr. Katko said Customs and Border Protection is shifting money in its accounts and has taken some cash out of Border Patrol agents’ salaries and pensions. Unless Congress passes an emergency spending bill, he said, “I don’t know how we’re even going to pay these guys.”
He described the conditions in one of the detention facilities, where hundreds of people were being held.
“Not one of them has had a COVID test,” he said.
The Washington Times has reported that migrants who are eventually tested show infection rates as high as 25%.
Mr. McCarthy said one processing facility they visited had 120 Border Patrol agents working inside to care for the record number of people.
That means they have been taken off the front lines, leaving holes in the country’s security.
The revelations about people on terrorist watch lists crossing into the U.S. lends new national security implications to the surge. The lawmakers said smuggling organizations are using the massive numbers of regular migrants to create chaos, sending large groups over to overwhelm and distract Border Patrol agents.
Migrants from terrorism-connected countries are known in government-speak as “special interest aliens.” The Border Patrol reported this year that it had arrested a group of 11 Iranians in Yuma, Arizona.
Sources said it’s unlikely that the Iranians were connected with terrorism, given the group’s makeup, but terrorist suspects have used the southern border.
The Washington Times has reported on several smuggling operations that specialized in shepherding migrants from terrorism-hotbed countries to South America and then helped them travel through Mexico and into the U.S.
Mr. McCarthy, at the border, challenged Mr. Biden, who is planning to make several trips this week to tout enactment of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, to divert his plane and see the surge up close.
The office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Mr. McCarthy, with his border trip, was “desperately trying to distract” attention from Mr. Biden’s victory last week in getting Congress to pass the coronavirus bill, which every Republican voted against.
The White House has declined to use the term “crisis” for the border situation and instead calls it a “challenge.”
Presidential spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that the record numbers of juveniles sleeping on floors in overcrowded facilities is “not acceptable.”
“But I think the challenge here is that there are not that many options,” she said. “We have a lot of critics, but many of them are not putting forward a lot of solutions.”
She said the Biden administration won’t adopt the Trump policy of refusing entry to unaccompanied juveniles. Given that, she said, the only choices are to release them to homes without vetting the people who would be taking them or to try to open more shelters so they can be held in better conditions than the border stations.
“That’s exactly what we’re focused on doing … as quickly as possible,” she said.
She and other administration officials, as well as Mrs. Pelosi, have blamed the surge on the Trump administration.
They say the previous team left a “broken” system and a “pent-up demand” and Mr. Biden’s takeover offered hope to would-be migrants, which is why they are surging.
The numbers suggest the migrants are responding to specific changes Mr. Biden has made.
While unauthorized crossings are up across the board, it is the unaccompanied juveniles who are setting records. That is one area where Mr. Biden made a pointed change, reversing a Trump coronavirus policy that expelled them back to Mexico.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said the Biden team owes the country — and in particular his state, which is bearing the brunt of the surge — some answers.
“Is the federal government tracking what countries these children are coming from and what COVID-19 variants they might have been exposed to? How long will these children be held in Texas? Are these children receiving COVID-19 tests, and how is the Biden administration handling those who test positive?” he said.
“Texas is putting President Biden on notice that his policies are risking the health and safety of Texans and putting children at risk from cartels and human traffickers,” Mr. Abbott said.