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There are congressional representatives from both parties working to solve the immigration situation at the southern border of the United States, but others are using the humanitarian crisis as an opportunity to score political points, said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker last week.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., part of a small but vocal progressive wing of the Democratic party, made headlines recently when she compared the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding facilities to "concentration camps" and claimed detainees were forced to drink out of toilets.

"Any member of Congress who simply goes and complains about the conditions and does nothing about it, it’s nothing but political rhetoric," Smucker said.

Smucker, R-Lancaster, joined several members of Congress from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and visited U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities in Rio Grande, Texas, on Friday, July 19.

The legislators visited a port of entry, a processing facility and a couple of holding facilities.

"It was bad, even more so than I think any of us realized," he said.

Smucker said the border patrol agents and CBP officers are doing the best they can under the circumstances, but that CBP facilities are overflowing with more people than they were ever designed to accommodate.

Apprehensions at the southern border began steadily climbing in January and continued rising.

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In May 2019, the total number of those apprehended crossing into this country illegally and those deemed inadmissible at ports of entry — 144,278 — was 178% higher than the total in May 2018, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

But immigration officials had predicted the number would drop in June as a result of Mexico sending its national guard to that country's border with Guatemala, where the caravans were passing through to reach the United States.

That turned out to be true.

Apprehensions of those found crossing illegally or deemed inadmissible at a port of entry decreased 27.7% from May to June.

Most of the people arriving at the border are coming from desperate situations and rely on cartels to make the journey, Smucker said he learned from border patrol agents.

Border agents told the congressional representatives that migrants agree to pay cartels anywhere from $100 to several thousand dollars, depending on how far they're traveling, Smucker said. But once they arrive in the U.S., most people still owe that money and must work for years, often in terrible conditions, to pay it off.

"It’s essentially human trafficking and slavery to pay that back," Smucker said.

At one point during the visit, the representatives saw a border patrol agent taking care of a baby boy.

The agent told them the baby arrived at the border with a man who claimed to be his father, but DNA tests revealed the baby had no relation to the man, and U.S. officials didn't know the baby's name, where he was from, or even whether he'd been kidnapped or sold to a cartel.

People crossing the border know they have a better chance of being released into the United States to wait for their court case if they arrive as a family unit, Smucker said, which incentivizes both legitimate and fraudulent families to make the dangerous journey.

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Carroll Township, and Smucker are co-sponsors of H.R. 586, a resolution that would increase penalties for false asylum claims.

The bill would also ensure that any minor who arrives at the border with a parent or legal guardian will remain with that parent or guardian until a judge hears their case, which would happen within 14 days of their arrival.

A representative from Perry's office could not be reached for comment.

Smucker said border patrol agents told him that having a wall or physical barrier helps in certain areas of the border but that it's more important for Congress to change the laws that incentivize illegal crossings in the first place. 

"It’s going to take all of us getting beyond what is too often political rhetoric here," Smucker said. "It’s going to take a thorough understanding of what is happening by enough people willing to solve it."

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