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DHS secretary, McSally to tour border in Nogales

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will return to Arizona to tour the state's border with Mexico on Thursday to visit several sites, including the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in downtown Nogales. 

Nielsen, along with U.S. Reps. Martha McSally and David Schweikert, will participate in a "roundtable" discussion with "border stakeholders" which includes ranchers, members of the "business community," as well as officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and members of the Arizona National guard, according to a release from McSally's congressional office. 

The secretary will also take a "line tour" to view what McSally's office called "enforcement challenges" along the Arizona-Mexico border, which includes border fencing and terrain, as well as "spotter lookout points." 

This is the second time that Nielsen has visited Arizona in two months. On April 18, Nielsen, with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in tow, used her tour of the border near San Luis, Arizona to argue there was a border "crisis." 

"We have no idea what's coming through areas that we do not have a way currently to properly and adequately surveil," Nielsen told reporters. "So to me, that is the definition of a crisis," she said. 

Both McSally and Nielsen need to make a strong statement about the border. 

McSally, a Republican. faces tough challenges from her right from border security hawks in her bid to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, and Nielsen has to satisfy the White House's drive to dramatically increase deportations and apprehensions. 

Just two weeks ago, McSally asked to remove her name from a bill that would have regularized the status of "Dreamers" — young people who were given deferred action from deportation by immigration authorities. In Sept. 2017, McSally signed on to a letter that asked House Speaker Paul Ryan to move forward on the bill, arguing that "Congress has a responsibility and a duty to address this problem legislatively" and that the status of DACA recipients "should not be left to the political winds of different administrations that come to power." 

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Instead, McSally is pushing for another Republican-led bill that will allow DACA recipients to continue receiving protections, but slash overall immigration by 25 percent, while criminalizing being in the U.S. without status or violating any part of civil immigration law. 

Nielsen's visit also comes serious questions about how her agency is dealing with children held in U.S. detention facilities, and a policy launched by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prosecute anyone who crosses the border without authorization, dramatically increasing the number of people in U.S. courts, and creating a major crisis, as hundreds, if not thousands of children are separated from their parents. 

Nielsen's visit comes the day after McSally presided over a House Border and Maritime Security subcommittee field hearing held in Phoenix to, as she put it, "examine the role of an unsecured border in the opioid crisis." 

Also on the dais were U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva, Kristen Sinema, and Ruben Gallego, all Democrats. Sinema is running in her party's U.S. Senate primary.

During her opening statement, McSally said that she wanted to "highlight this crisis" and pushed for a holistic approach that would include not just law enforcement, but state agencies and non-governmental organizations. She also noted a remarkable statistic, four doctors in Mohave County prescribed 6 million pills last year. 

The opioid crisis remains a major problem for Arizona, and an "un-secure" border "enables and exacerbates this situation," she said. McSally also said that "an overwhelming majority of drugs, maybe as high as 90 percent come through the nation's ports of entry." 

This is in part because CBP officials can only x-ray a "fraction" of the thousands of vehicles that come through ports each day, she said. 

Following McSally's statement, Grijalva noted that the opioid "crisis" was tragic and said that saving asked why the committee didn't have a "top-level pharmaceutical CEO" to explain the role of companies that produce legal opioids in "igniting the demand" for painkillers. 

Grijalva also noted that Arizona's ports had been "historically underfunded." 

Ducey also attended the meeting as a witness and called attention to Arizona's Border Strike Force, noting that in one operation, the group seized 4,000 pounds of marijuana, and overall has seized 15.3 "hits" of heroin. 

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Even as overall drug seizures have declined from 2012 to 2017, Arizona continues to be the main avenue for drug smuggling into the United States, followed by the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. 

Drug smugglers are shifting from bulky shipments of marijuana to smaller quantities of more potent, and more profitable drugs. Marijuana seizures dropped nearly one-third, but while seizures of cocaine and heroin dropped slightly as well, seizures of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid spiked 116 percent, and seizures during fiscal 2018 are already nearing last year's total. 

During the hearing, the acting director of Field Operations in Tucson, Guadalupe Ramirez, said that CBP officers had also encountered 18 fentanyl "analogues." 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

U.S. Rep. Martha McSally will tour the border with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in Nogales.