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Johnson calls migrant crisis 'truly unconscionable' during visit to besieged southern border

House Speaker Mike Johnson on Wednesday called the Biden-era crisis at the southern border an "unmitigated disaster" after record numbers of encounters at the border.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, leading a GOP delegation to the southern border on Wednesday, slammed what he said is a "truly unconscionable" migrant crisis at the southern border and blamed it on President Biden's policies – as encounter numbers hit record levels and talks over supplemental funding have so far failed to produce an agreement.

Johnson led more than 60 Republicans to the southern border to assess the ongoing crisis, where migrant encounters hit a record 302,000 last month.

"One thing is absolutely clear: America is at breaking point with record levels of illegal immigration," he said in a press conference.

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"The situation here and across the country is truly unconscionable. We would describe it as both heartbreaking and infuriating," he said.

Republicans were clear that they blamed the crisis on the policies of the administration, pointing to the rollback of Trump-era policies like the Remain-in-Mexico policy and a greater number of releases of migrants into the interior, both under Notices to Appear and through the "expanded lawful pathways" set up by the administration.

"Rather than incentivizing people to come, the president needs to deter people from coming. Rather than discussing amnesty with Mexico…this administration should reinstate the Remain-in-Mexico policy," he said.

"This is an unmitigated disaster, a catastrophe and what's more tragic is it's a disaster of the president's own design," he said, accusing the president of putting out a "welcome mat" for illegal immigrants.

The border trip comes not only amid high numbers but amid ongoing negotiations in Washington over the White House’s border supplemental request. The administration has requested $14 billion for border funding as part of the $100 billion+ package which includes money for Ukraine and Israel.

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Republicans in both chambers have said the package does not include enough limits on asylum and the use of humanitarian parole, and negotiators in the Senate have been trying to find a way to come to an agreement with the administration.

But Republicans in the House have gone a step further and want the entirety of the House Republican border bill, passed last year, to be included. That includes money for more Border Patrol agents, the restarting of wall construction and significant limits on the release of migrants into the interior. Johnson said the bill, H.R. 2, is the "necessary ingredient."

"Because it has provisions that fix each of these problems and these things work together," he said.

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However, Democrats in the Senate have ruled out H.R. 2 and similar proposals as a non-starter. Even some reported concessions by the Biden administration, including the establishment of a Title 42-style removal authority, have been met with anger from some liberal Democrats.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, sought to pin some of the blame on Republicans for failing to agree to the funding request as it is. 

"We have House Republicans that are literally blocking the president's effort to do something. That's what they're doing. They're playing political games. They're doing political stunts," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday.

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"Speaker Johnson is continuing to block President Biden’s proposed funding to hire thousands of new Border Patrol agents, hire more asylum officers and immigration judges, provide local communities hosting migrants additional grant funding, and invest in cutting edge technology that is critical to stopping deadly fentanyl from entering our country," spokesperson Andrew Bates said earlier Wednesday.

The Biden administration has said it is pursuing a policy of expanding lawful pathways for migration while increasing "consequences" for illegal entry -- pointing to what it says are over 460,000 returns of illegal immigrants since Title 42 ended in May, more removals than in all of FY 19. 

But it says it needs comprehensive immigration reform to fix what it says is a broken system. The administration unveiled a bill in January 2021, but it has been rejected by Republicans due to its inclusion of a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

While the two approaches appear to clash, the administration said Tuesday evening that there has been progress in talks.

"Our negotiations with the Senate continued over the holidays, and we continue to be encouraged by the progress being made. And while we are not there yet, we believe we are moving in the right direction," a senior administration official told reporters.

On Wednesday, however, Johnson said that after the trip Republicans were more resolved to "stand for sanity."

"If President Biden wants a supplemental spending bill focused on national security, it’d better begin by focusing on America’s national security," he said.

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