Billings Gazette: Daines cites “national security” threat along U.S. Mexico border

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., called for a major U.S. policy change along the U.S.-Mexico border after touring the boundary Wednesday.

Montana’s Republican senator characterized the thousands of daily illegal crossings into the United States as a threat to national security, putting blame on Democratic President Joe Biden, while also calling for a federal policy change.

“I believe our southern border, and my observations today affirm, that it is a threat to national security. It must be secured,” Daines said.

“These are backward policies. These are wrong policies of President Biden that have created this crisis. He suspended construction of the border wall. He ended the remain in Mexico policy. He ended Title 42. And that has created an out of control, porous southern border that is a threat to national security.”

Both on the presidential campaign trail and in Congress, Republicans are characterizing border crossings and fentanyl smuggling as a national security threat justifying military escalation, including U.S. troops waging war with drug cartels in Mexico, a move the Mexican government decries as a violation of that nation’s sovereignty.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports 2.2 million encounters with migrants along the U.S.-Mexico Border in the first 11 months of the just-ended federal fiscal year, with September totals remaining to be counted.

In August, agents encountered 232,972 migrants according to CBP. From October 2022 through August, agents seized more than 25,500 pounds of fentanyl, nearly doubling the amount from the same period a year earlier. Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl are by far the leading cause of national drug-involved overdoses, with about 80,000 in 2021, reports the Centers for Disease Control.

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has promised military force if elected. In a teased excerpt from the coming memoir of Mark Esper, the former Trump defense secretary, said Trump twice asked about launching missiles into Mexico in 2020.

The former president’s long-shot challengers for the GOP’s 2024 nomination are making similar promises of military attacks. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in a September interview with NBC news anchor Nora O’Donnell left the door open for missile strikes on Mexico if elected president. In June, DeSantis suggested a U.S. naval blockade of China freighters bound for Mexico to stop the import of fentanyl ingredients, as well and lethal force against those trying to cut through border barriers.

Candidate Nikki Haley, Trump’s former United Nations ambassador promises to send U.S. troops into Mexico to combat drug cartels. Candidates that have shied away from invading another country trail the rest of the Republican pack.

In Congress there are Republican bills to designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. There are also bills authorizing the president to “use the Armed Forces against foreign nations, foreign organizations, or foreign persons affiliated with foreign organizations that the President determines are involved in trafficking fentanyl or fentanyl-related substances.”

There are also several resolutions mostly by Democrats affirming that Mexico is an important neighbor the United States needs to work with.

Mexico is not amused at suggestions that a U.S. war on drugs reboot involve an actual war on Mexican soil.

“We are not going to allow any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less that a government’s armed forces intervene,” said Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in a recorded March press conference in which he specifically responded to congressional Republicans advocating for a military assault in Mexico on cartels.

President Biden is facing pressure to do more on the U.S.-Mexico border, not only from Republicans, but also from Democratic mayors of major cities overwhelmed by migrants, including those flown into liberal communities by DeSantis.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security published details of a 20-mile wall project in Texas, which federal regulators were waiving two dozen federal laws to expedite. The Associated Press reported that Biden described the construction as mandated by law during the Trump era and had to be built in 2023.

“It took him three years to wake up. But that’s a good start. But 20 miles is not sufficient. But that’s a good start,” Daines said. “So, I support what he wants to do there. I asked the Border Patrol agents about that. And they said, ‘Yes, they need to do that.’ But he needs to continue finishing the wall that was started under the last administration. We need to give our Border Patrol agents all the tools they need to secure the southern border and the wall is one of those important tools.”

Biden is also losing support among red state Congressional Democrats on border issues. Montana Democrat Jon Tester, up for reelection in 2024, joined Republicans in May on a bill attempting to prevent Title 42 from expiring. Title 42 allows migrants to be expelled from the United States for public health concerns. The rule was invoked by the Trump administration, which cited the spread of COVID-19 as justification. The Biden administration moved to end the practice.

In the final eight months before the Biden administration ended Title 42, there were 549,814 expulsions along the U.S. Mexico border, reports U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In the previous fiscal year, expulsions numbered 1,054,084.

U.S.-to-Mexico gun smuggling is also exacerbating the border problem. Mexico has sued U.S. gun manufacturers, alleging that gun companies are encouraging trafficking of U.S. guns to drug cartels in Mexico.

Wednesday, a Bozeman resident pleaded guilty to smuggling guns purchased in Montana to Mexico during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, February through May 2020. The purchases involved 31 handguns. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recovered several semi-automatic handguns, assault-style rifles, and receipts of gun purchases from several Montana gun shops from the Bozeman home of Cristyan Jose Gonzalez-Carrillo.

“Buying guns in Montana and taking them to Mexico to sell is illegal,” said U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich for the District of Montana in a press release. “Fighting gun violence remains a top priority for our office and as today’s hearing showed, we will investigate and prosecute anyone who violates federal firearms laws.”