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Addressing the border

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., left, speaks with a landowner in Arizona near the border between the United States and Mexico. (Courtesy photo)1 / 3
The fencing pictured along the U.S.-Mexico border near San Luis, Arizona. (Caitlin O'Hara / The Washington Post)2 / 3
A graphic from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency shows the large spike in apprehensions and inadmissions of immigrants into the United States from the southwest border with Mexico. (Courtesy photo)3 / 3

As he put it, U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson put boots to the ground this week on one of the nation's top current issues.

The congressman from Mitchell was at the nation's southern border, seeing up close the current situations the country faces, as arrests for illegal immigration swell and humanitarian matters remain a key issue.

Johnson, who was in Arizona Monday through Thursday, was part of a contingent of about 10 lawmakers who took up the offer of U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz. Johnson said members of both parties were invited, but only Republicans went on the trip.

"The number of people that have been apprehended has doubled in the last few months," Johnson said. "Anyone that has been to the border before hasn't been to this border."

Arrests and denials of entry at the border have continued to climb. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there were 103,492 apprehensions or inadmissions on the southwest border in March. By comparison, in March 2018, the number of stops made at the border was 50,347, and in March 2017, it was 16,794.

Since the start of the CBP fiscal year in October, there have been 422,334 apprehensions and inadmissions in a six-month span. That's more than all of the 2017 fiscal year, when 415,517 stops were made, and easily on pace to pass the most recent 12-month fiscal year (October 2017-September 2018), when 521,090 arrests and inadmissions were made.

Earlier in 2019, 58,293 apprehensions and inadmissions were made in January, with 76,535 stops made in February. Apprehensions made at the border are categorized into three areas: unaccompanied alien children, family units (individuals apprehended as part of a family) and single adults. And in all three categories, there have been large increases in total numbers in the last few months.

The Daily Republic spoke to the three members of the South Dakota congressional delegation — Johnson, along with Senators Mike Rounds and John Thune — this week about their personal experiences traveling to the United States' southern border with Mexico, with the goal of understanding how those trips influence their view of the border.

"I think it's a crisis, there's no doubt about it to me," Thune said. "There is an emergency there, and you can look at the spike in the last few months. ... We're on pace for a million people a year coming into the country illegally, and the president is right to focus on that."

First-hand experience

The three men, all Republicans, each have visited the border previously, and while all believe similarly in positions related to border issues, each had different emphases.

Thune, who said he's been to the border numerous times but didn't recall the date of his last trip, spoke about flying over the Rio Grande River with border security officials.

"It's a very daunting task when you see it, just how vast that is, and how easily crossable the river is," Thune said. "Any time you go down there and see the dimensions of the problem and what it takes to truly secure the border, you see how necessary change is."

Rounds last went to the southern border about four years ago, he said, spending time in Texas near McAllen and Laredo. He said he knows it wouldn't make sense to build a wall everywhere.

"It depends on the terrain, and we have some surveillance systems in place, as well," Rounds said. "In a number of areas, a pedestrian barrier or a vehicle barrier is going to make sense."

Rounds also spoke about a desire for improving infrastructure at ports of entry, to help expedite commerce between the two countries.

"In some areas, it's a matter of improving access across the border for moving goods and services in those ports of entry. The delays that occur at the border delay commerce," he said. "We want to upgrade and modernize those points of entry and more efficiently move goods and services legally into the country."

Johnson said he has traveled to the southern border before, but this week was his first trip as a congressman. He spent most of his time in Yuma and San Luis, Arizona, which are both located in the far western corner of the state.

Johnson, who posted updates about the trip as he went along on social media, included a 30-second video illustrating a location in Yuma along the Colorado River where he called crossing into the United States from Mexico "not difficult."

"It's a really complex problem, and there's no silver bullet," Johnson said when asked about the video. "But make no bones about it, a wall would help. We have 650 miles of wall now, and they do help."

He also got plenty of feedback online about his experiences. His photos, including one of 42 people apprehended at the border and another of a family holding area, received more than 200 comments on Twitter.

"You can't be bothered by the trolls on the political extremes," Johnson said. "I'm in Congress, and those kind of trolls will attack every single thing I say. ... There comes a point where you start to feel bad for the trolls. Some of these people are not well."

A wide effect

Thune said the effect more than 2,000 miles away in South Dakota is felt in many ways, especially drug trafficking.

"We've seen meth arrests triple in some of our biggest cities in the state," Thune said. "You don't have to be on the southern border to see the influence of harmful contraband. There's real threats to people, even if you are not a border town or a border state."

Rounds called attention to the arrest numbers on the southwest border — 47,984 in January, 66,884 in February and 92,607 in March — that stretch border patrol authorities thin.

"In those numbers, they overwhelm border security," Rounds said. "That takes manpower away. Drug smugglers know that."

Johnson also tweeted a photo of Drug Enforcement Administration evidence collected and labeled as suspected fentanyl, enough to kill 11 million people, he said.

"What is sobering is how much we likely don't catch at the border," Johnson said. "In the Yuma sector and talking to drug enforcement agents here, fentanyl seizures are up 15 times. But it's more concerning what we don't know, what we haven't seen."

All three of South Dakota's representatives cited concerns about the system that allows potential immigrants to pursue asylum, which is defined as someone who has left their home country because of being persecuted or out of fear for their race, religion, nationality or political opinion. Many are leaving Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and other Central American countries.

Rounds said it's clear that the reasons are related to economic opportunity available in the U.S. He said that from his experience, visiting with locals in border cities, people coming across weren't trying to hide from border protection and were willing to give themselves up.

"And many of the people coming into the country believe they're getting an opportunity," he said. "They're under the impression that once they've made it into the U.S., they're going to get their bus ticket and wait for a court date that might be 18 months to two years away. And they blend in to society.

"It's a public safety issue, and we want to make it very clear that if you make it to the southern border, you're going to be returned in an expedited fashion," Rounds added. "Once that happens, word will get out quickly and it won't be worth it if you're probably going to be sent back."

Johnson said policy changes are needed because the U.S. treats people differently who are part of family groups than they do single men or women. It leads to children being used as a commodity and trafficked, and he said improving fingerprint systems would help deter that.

"A lot of the traffic is using the same children over and over again, and it almost is a catch and release system for families," Johnson said. "There are going to be bad guys with a child that is not their own to be treated like a family."

The page turns to what can be done to make changes at the border. Thune, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said the lines have been drawn, with President Donald Trump clearly putting his stamp on wanting a physical barrier or wall. In the debate, Democrats have emphasized protecting Dreamers, a program which allows people brought illegally to the U.S. as children to temporarily live and work in the country as part of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

"I still think, in this debate, there's going to be tradeoffs you have to make," Thune said. "Dems are going to want legalization of people here, and really, the president has been going farther than any Republican president in my history for DACA."

Thune said that tradeoff will likely be the key point of any possible deal. In the House last month, Johnson introduced legislation that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to waive environmental regulations that he says stand in the way of building a border wall, but that bill has not yet gone to committee.

Rounds said he's been a part of a group that's worked on border security legislation in the past, and he expects to be once again. He said in previous years, he believed there was compromise for building a security system along the wall and protecting Dreamers.

"We're just beginning to work on that again," Rounds said. "I'm hopeful about that."