SALT LAKE CITY — A day after condemning the Biden administration for causing a crisis on the U.S. border with Mexico, Sen. Mike Lee plans to travel to the Southwest to get a firsthand look at the surge in migrants seeking asylum.
During a speech on the Senate floor, the Utah Republican implored people in Spanish to reconsider crossing the southern border illegally.
"Please do not send your wives and daughters on this journey only to be sexually assaulted by the coyotes and cartels. We hear story after story of smugglers kidnapping women and children and holding them hostage even after they cross our border," he said.
Lee planned to head to the southern border Thursday with a dozen GOP senators.
Lee has also proposed legislation to address loopholes in the immigration system that he says encourage vulnerable immigrants to take dangerous, illegal paths to enter the United States.
"The Biden administration is doing all it can to hide the humanitarian crisis created by its own immigration policies," Lee said in the speech.
The administration, he said, has denied media access, placed an unofficial gag order on border agents and barred journalists from detention centers since President Joe Biden took office.
"It shouldn't be a surprise to any of us that the Biden administration's open border policies have resulted in this overwhelming crisis, and a crisis it is," Lee said.
Biden, he said, let it be known that the border was open for business. The president reversed Trump-era policies that resulted in incentives for vulnerable people to entrust their lives to dangerous cartels and coyotes, he said. Biden also moved to repeal the "safe third country" asylum rule, Lee said.
At his first presidential news conference Thursday, Biden said he should be flattered that people are crossing the border because he's a "nice guy," but numbers haven't really changed the past couple of years.
Biden blamed the Trump administration for the surge and said there's an increase in the number of people coming to the border every winter. He said they're also coming because of the circumstances in their own country, including earthquakes, floods, gang violence and lack of food.
"By the way, does anybody suggest that there was a 31% increase under Trump because he was a nice guy? And he was doing good things at the border? That's not the reason they're coming," Biden said.
One reporter described a 9-year-old boy who walked to the border alone from Honduras and whose mother said she sent him because she heard Biden was not deporting unaccompanied minors like her son.
Asked if his policies were encouraging people to come to the U.S., Biden said, he's not going to let an unaccompanied child starve to death on the other side of the border.
"No previous administration did that either, except Trump. I'm not going to do it," the president said.
Utah GOP Rep. Chris Stewart panned Biden's first news conference.
"Blaming the former administration for the border crisis and villainizing the Republican Party, all while championing 'unity,' is as misleading as it is fruitless," he said.
"Blaming the former administration for the border crisis and villainizing the Republican Party, all while championing 'unity,' is as misleading as it is fruitless."— Rep. Chris Stewart (@RepChrisStewart) March 25, 2021
Read my full statement on @POTUS' first solo press conference here: https://t.co/bAkqX3pawh
On Tuesday, Lee and four other Republican senators introduced the Stopping Border Surges Act to tighten immigration policies that "perversely" compel women and children to entrust their money, futures and lives to cartels and coyotes. Democrats blunted his attempt to push the bill for consideration in the Senate, which he called "regrettable."
"This is a very dire set of circumstances," he said.
The bill proposes reforms that would help stem the flood of illegal immigrants, eliminate the incentive to send children to the border alone and dampen the exploitative power of cartels and coyotes, according to the senators.
1/2 Today I proposed immediate, common-sense reforms that would help stem the flood of immigrants at our border and protect vulnerable women and children from the clutches of the cartels and coyotes. Sadly, it was blocked by Senate Democrats. https://t.co/TpsD56jLHa— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) March 24, 2021
Citing media accounts, Lee said cartels are telling people in Central America that Biden has opened the borders and that amnesty is imminent.
"These vulnerable people are flocking to smugglers and violent criminals and paying them all that they have for their chance to get in while they can," he said.
In the past month, traffickers allegedly made as much as $14 million a week smuggling men, women and children across the border, he said. Men are being used as slaves, women raped and children "rented" to pose as the child of one illegal immigrant after another to activate the "so-called Flores get-out-of-jail-free card," he said.
The landmark court settlement known as the Flores agreement sets national standards for the detention, release and treatment of all undocumented children in federal custody. It prohibits the government from detaining children in any facility for more than 20 days.
But Lee said the agreement has been "expansively" interpreted to include any minor whether accompanied by a parent or not, meaning an adult claiming to be the parent of an accompanying child must also be released within 20 days of apprehension.
"Flores is about the protection of children, and yet in the application of the expansion, we've put children in even greater danger of becoming victims of trafficking and cartel manipulation," he said.
Also, only unaccompanied minors from Mexico and Canada are returned home quickly, while children from other countries are placed in lengthy removal proceedings, Lee said.
"It makes me wonder what is it about children from Central American countries, from any country other than Canada and Mexico, that makes them undeserving of that same expedited processing requirement," he said.
On Thursday, Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, also blamed Biden for creating chaos at the border.
"If you do the things that our President Biden has done, you're going to take away every sense of accountability, you're going to take away the idea that there's a system in place where people go, they get in line, they do it the right way," he said on KSL NewsRadio.
Owens said solutions start with closing the southern border.
"It comes down to how do we look at our homes, our personal homes. What do we do? We lock our doors. Why? Because we want to vet everybody that comes through so we feel safe inside. That has to be the beginning of any conversation," he said.