With border wall as backdrop, Mike Pence launches GOP push to gain congressional seats in 2022
With all the hallmarks of an early campaign event, former Vice President Mike Pence held a press conference near Montezuma Pass just north from a section of Southern Arizona border wall left unfinished by the Biden administration.
With a sweeping view of the valley below, Pence made sure to stand next to rancher John Ladd as they spoke about the increasing number of people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. With an accompanying photographer, Pence spoke with Ladd and rancher Fred Davis for a few moments before speaking to a gaggle of reporters.
"We are at the site of an American crisis," Pence began, adding that this was "unprecedented" are "literally the result of the policies that President (Joe) Biden and his administration put into effect starting on day one."
The influx of people along the border is a major political headache for Biden, who promised a more "humane" border following the Trump administration's attempts to clamp down on the border and its drive to fulfill one of the ex-president's political ambitions—a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.
Earlier that morning, Pence held a round-table discussion with Cochise County officials, including Sierra Vista Mayor Rick Mueller, county supervisors, as well as Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels and several of his deputies. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey was slated to attend the event, but dropped out after he tested positive for COVID-19.
Also at the table were three Trump administration officials—former Border Patrol chief Rodney Scott, ex-acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan, and Tom Homan, former director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Tim Roemer, the director of the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, thanked Pence for traveling to Arizona, saying he has "done so much to deal with security over the years."
"You have done so much to deal with security through the years," he told Pence, adding "unfortunately we've seen this border security crisis grow and grow with Vice President Pence out of office. and his team out of office really unfortunate."
Pence thanked Roemer and Ducey for "organizing the conversation," and said Cochise County officials had found themselves at the "tip of the spear" where a "wave of illegal immigration continues to buffet" the border with "very little support from our nation's capitol." Pence further blamed the Biden administration for an increasing number of people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, arguing the Trump administration handed over the "most secure border in American history."
"And, now we have the worst border crisis in the history of our nation," he said. "But it is fixable."
Pence linked border security to the 2022 election, telling Cochise County officials "that soon and very soon, the American people are going to elect a new generation of leadership."
"Help is on the way," he said.
As Pence finished, reporters in the room were ordered to leave for the round-table discussion.
While Pence spoke to Dannels and other Cochise County officials, reporters were sent to the Coronado National Forest where Cochise County sheriff's deputies were waiting to transport them in trucks along a construction road for the border wall. From the San Pedro River—once considered one of the last "free-flowing rivers" in the U.S.—through the Coronado National Forest, the border wall runs for several miles, rising up along a tall ridge about 73 miles southwest of Tucson.
As the deputies drove their vehicles up a rocky hill, they drove past piles of concrete-filled "bollards" destined to become part of the border wall further up the ridge. In April 2021, the Biden administration said it would cancel border wall projects, a long-expected move after Biden said in January he would hit "pause" on Trump's central campaign issue. However, in some cases, Homeland Security officials have restarted some border wall projects, or sought remediation work to clean up sections debris and deal with erosion caused by the border wall's construction.
During construction, contractors carved out their own road, which meanders roughly to the left and right to deal with the steep incline. At one turn, the vehicles stopped where a staging spot allowed for a grand look at the new border wall as well as where the border wall stops, replaced by the four-string barbed wire that once marked most of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Some "bollards" have been sent to Texas for border wall construction there, and the Biden administration has moved to build new sections of wall to "promote health and safety" as well as moved forward with remediation efforts to repair or finish roads, or protect sites from erosion caused by the incomplete construction.
With the border wall and the valley below behind him, Pence said he was "proud" to say under the Trump administration, illegal immigration decreased 90 percent.
However, data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection—the parent agency of U.S. Border Patrol—does not bear this out.
Under the Obama administration average monthly apprehensions—times Border Patrol agents or officials at border crossings took someone into custody—were around 35,000. Under the Trump administration average monthly apprehensions rose to nearly 42,000 per month.
Further, in the last month of the Obama administration, border officials intercepted people nearly 44,000 times. While apprehensions declined through 2017, they increased significantly in 2018 and 2019, before again declining in March 2020 during the outbreak of COVID-19. On the last month of the Trump administration, border officials reported they found 71,000 people in December 2021. An increase of around 61 percent.
In total, during the Trump administration's tenure, border officials intercepted people around 1.7 million times. And, this occurred even as the Trump administration repeatedly attempted to block asylum seekers from entering the U.S.
This includes the disastrous move to separate children from their parents, as well as the highly-controversial "Remain in Mexico" program, and Title 42—a policy once supported by the CDC that allows federal officials to rapidly expel people from the U.S. if they have traveled through a country with COVID-19 cases.
Following Trump's loss in November 2020, Biden came into office in January 2021 promising to reign in these policies and treat migrant more humanely. However, the Biden administration kept Title 42 in place, and the move to end the "Remain in Mexico" policy was blocked by a federal judge as part of a lawsuit launched by Republican governors.
Under the Biden administration, U.S. officials have intercepted people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border around 2.7 million times, an increase of around 57 percent from the Trump administration. However, this has occurred in just 28 months, and the rapid pace of apprehensions has strained Border Patrol's resources.
In the Tucson Sector, which runs from the New Mexico border west toward Yuma County—and includes Cochise County—around 148,000 people have been intercepted since October 2021, according to data from CBP. Of those, nearly 120,000 were immediately expelled under Title 42, while just 28,000 were given the chance to seek asylum, or were prosecuted for illegal entry or illegal re-entry. Most of the people taken into custody were single adults coming from Mexico, according to CBP figures. However, there was also around 7,800 people traveling as families, and nearly 11,000 children traveling without parents or guardians.
CBP officials have said for months Title 42 contributes to "higher-than-usual number of migrants making multiple border crossing attempts." In May, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus—Tucson's former police chief— said while officials reported encountering people nearly 234,000 times in April, nearly 33 percent of those involved people who previously attempted to cross at least once before in the last year.
CBP data also shows that the influx of people has declined in Arizona, decreasing about 54 percent from a year earlier.
In April, around 107,000 people intercepted by Border Patrol agents were processed under Title 8—which includes both asylum claims and those who face criminal prosecution—and around 95,000 were immediately expelled under Title 42. Among officials at U.S. ports, around 37,000 people were processed under Title 8, while nearly 4,000 people were rebuffed under Title 42.
The Biden administration attempted to end Title 42, however, that move was also stymied by a federal judge as a result of a lawsuit launched by Republican governors, including Ducey and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"I'm here because I wanted to see firsthand what was happening on the ground here for people that are that are trying to make a living to run multi-generation ranches, and most importantly to hear from law enforcement," Pence said. While Arizona has provided "great leadership" to deal with the "crisis," Pence blamed the Biden administration for not doing enough.
"This is not an Arizonan problem. This is an American problem. And the American people understand that a nation without borders is not a nation," he said.
After speaking near the border, Pence decamped to Phoenix, where he gave a speech telling a crowd at the Arizona Commerce Authority the border is a "crisis of epic proportions, and it's costing lives on both sides of the border."
'It's never been this intense'
Ladd, a fourth-generation rancher who owns about 16,000 acres east of the San Pedro River—including about 10 miles of land that abuts the border—complained that its never been worse for his family, because migrants "are everywhere" on his property. He also argued this was part of a "deliberate" effort to change the "demographics of America," echoing the "Great Replacement Theory" that has become a standard argument among right-wing, anti-immigrant forces.
"When any politician talks about a pathway to citizenship or amnesty we have a surge," Ladd said, linking both the Reagan administration's amnesty and Biden's policies to the increase of people on his property. During the four years of Trump, he said, agents were catching five or six people a week, Ladd said, however, now Border Patrol agents are catching 100 a day. "But they're so undermanned that they're only catching a third of that what they think is coming," he said, adding that Cochise County deputies are detecting more people using trail cameras along borderland trails.
Border Patrol and other DHS officials have increasingly warned smugglers are shifting their tactics, relying on cellphones to guide migrants across the harsh landscape. While groups once had guides—often referred to as 'coyotes' smugglers are now using WhatsApp, and other services to send migrants from point to point, decreasing their risk of arrest. Ladd referenced this shift, and complained about traffic accidents on the nearest highway, caused by young smugglers attempting to outrun law enforcement.
"It's never been this intense," Ladd said. "It's the worst it's ever been."
'I did my duty'
Pence was asked about the Jan. 6 insurrection, when thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building to keep Congress from certifying the November 2020 election. Pence called the incident "tragic."
"Thanks to the courage of law enforcement, we secured the Capitol and we restored order," he said. "We were able to complete our duty under the constitution of the United States of America. I'll always believe that I did my duty that day and I know in my heart of hearts I did."
"I believe that when all the information and the facts come forward, the American people will better understand what occurred," he said. This puts him at odds with ex-president Trump, who has pushed the idea the election was "stolen" from him to raise more than $250 million from supporters, and launched fusillades against any Republican or Democrat who believe the election was carried out responsible.
In an interview, Trump once defended the idea that people wanted to "hang" the vice president because he passed a vote that was "fraudulent."
Pence then pivoted from his duty to Biden's, telling reporters the President has an "obligation to provide for the common defense, to guarantee the common defense, and border security is national security," he said.
"So I believe that on that day on January 6, we did our duty and I think now's the time for President Biden to do his duty to turn aside the open border extremist voices in his party and step forward, and provide leadership that is consistent with his obligations under the constitution of the United States," Pence said.
Pence demurred when he was asked if he would run for 2024, and instead told reporters his "focus" was on electing conservative leaders for the U.S. House and Senate in November. "We'll let the future take care of itself."
Pence was vague on specifically what the Biden administration can do to limit apprehensions along the border, but argued the Biden administration ended the Remain in Mexico policy, and allowed a treaty with the Northern Triangle countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—to lapse. And, he argued the end of construction "overnight" on the border wall " created a "crisis we ended under our administration."
In Phoenix, Pence told the crowd: "The truth of the matter is under the Trump-Pence administration, our neighbors to the south knew we expected them to do their part to secure their border and ours."
"They showed respect to America during the Trump-Pence years," the former vice president claimed.
In Los Angeles, summit of Americas
On Friday, the Biden administration released plans for a new agreement to curb and manage migration during a meeting in Los Angeles. Twenty countries in the Americas—including Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti—singed onto the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection as part of the summit.
The governments said they would help create conditions for "safe, orderly, humane, and regular migration," and "strengthen frameworks for international protection and cooperation." This will include assistance for refugees and asylum seekers, new pathways for legal immigration, and increased coordination of "border management systems" and emergency response.
As part of this effort, the Biden administration said it would resettle 20,000 refugees from the Americas in the next two years, and would work to "backfill" vacancies at the State Department created under the Trump administration that have hampered its ability to manage refugee claims.
“We have a lot of rebuilding to do because the program was decimated by the previous administration,” said Brian McKeon, State's deputy secretary for management and resources, during a congressional hearing in April. "The president has given us an ambitious target. We’re not going to hit it this year but we’ve got to make progress so we can hit it in the next couple years."
The White House also said it was sending 700 agents with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of ICE, to crackdown on human smuggling as part of what it called Operation Expanded Impact. On Friday, Biden said the campaign has arrested 1,800 smugglers in its first two months, and DHS has executed nearly 30,000 law enforcement actions.
"If you prey on desperate and vulnerable migrants for profit, we are coming for you," Biden said. "We are coming after you."
Cronkite News reporter Troy Hill contributed to this story.