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House Judiciary Committee holds field hearing in Yuma

YUMA, Ariz. (KAWC) - Members of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday held a field hearing in Yuma to learn more about the impact the influx of undocumented immigrants is having on the county.

Touring Yuma's Hospital

The delegation of Republican Congressmen's day started early with a visit to the border, followed by a tour of Yuma Regional Medical Center. They wanted to learn more about the millions of dollars YRMC in uncompensated care to asylum seekers.

YRMC President and CEO Dr. Robert Trenschell told the representatives more about the dilemma the hospital faces.

"We've delivered $26 million in uncompensated care to migrants that have crossed the border. You know, when you, if you think of it this way, you know we're required by law to see everybody that comes to our door and we have to do that. And there've been 300,000 people that lined up at the border, and they've come in over the past year," Trenschell said.

"And we have to see any one of those that need hospital visits, and we've done that, and we do it with pride and everybody gets the same level of care. If you or your grandmother walks in here or your kids walk in here, they're going to get the same care that the migrant kids, and we do that happily. But what we need is a payer source for those individuals."

During the tour, the committee heard more from nurses and staff about the stress the additional patients has put on hospital resources - primarily because their mandate is to provide the same level of care to every patient, regardless of immigration status.

Neonatal nurses described buying every car seat they could find to ensure every baby who left the hospital had a safe way to travel. However, they also stressed they make sure every baby born in the hospital has a car seat.

Some members of the committee questioned whether care suffered as the number of patients increased. The hospital insisted that was not the case, although it conceded that is a common perception. Rather, the stress was born by doctors and nurses, who had to work extra shifts, or administrators who had to scramble to find travel staff to fill gaps.

Dr. Trenschell says YRMC remains financially stable in spite of the huge volume of unpaid medical bills, but says the situation is unsustainable in the long term.

The doctor provided similar testimony later in the day when the committee moved to Yuma City Hall for its hearing.

The hearing comes to order

Interest in Thursday afternoon's hearing was high. A long line formed as members of the audience waited to pass through security and onto the hearing.

The atmosphere was surprisingly festive, with attendees sporting patriotic gear, and hats and t-shirts emblazoned with "Go Brandon." People took selfies with Rep. Matt Gaetz, (R-Florida), and an early-declaring 2024 presidential candidate circulated through the crowd.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan started the hearing with a blistering indictment of the Biden administration's border policies. He cited the drop in illegal crossing under the Trump administration, and the spike that began when President Joe Biden was elected. Rep. Jordan's comments were greeted with cheers and applause from the audience. In fact, applause frequently paused the proceedings.

The committee then called for testimony from Vice-Chair of the Yuma County Supervisors Jonathan Lines, who explained why the surge in illegal crossings threatens national security.

"We saw a huge surge, a record number of people crossing illegally from 106 different countries. 17 of those countries are designated as special interest because of the negative relationship with the United States and a desire to do harm. And it has steadily continued these many months." Line said.

Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot later offered some perspective on the impact the rise in undocumented immigrants is having on the county.

“To best understand my presentation, you need to understand where we were two year ago. My county was one of the safest border communities and counties based on our collective governmental efforts, messaging and yes, delivering 100% consequence delivery and enforcement efforts against the criminal element supported by the rule of law," Wilmot said.

"Apprehensions by Border Patrol were an average of roughly 40 a day when the policies of this administration changed, our federal agents immediately averaged 200 a day, then 400 a day to over 1,000 a day apprehensions along the river flowing north.”

Sheriff Wilmot went on to describe the stress the spike in crossings is having on his deputies, his support staff, and his jail.

He also discussed the rise in drug incursions in remote eastern Yuma County. It's a point he raised during a past conversation with KAWC. We have asked the Sheriff's Office for reports detailing the increase in east county drug smuggling attempts, but thus far we've received no response to our request.

It was a topic later raised by Congressman Andy Biggs, (R-Arizona). Biggs does not serve on the committee, but was invited to question witnesses as an honored guest.

Rep. Biggs questioned reporting that most of the fentanyl entering the US does so through the ports of entry. Supervisor Lines responded with information that would appear to confirm the Congressman’s suspicions.

"I'm going to try to first undercut a narrative that our colleagues across the aisle raise, and they'll tell you that 90% of fentanyl is seized at the border... at the port of entry right port of entry, "said Biggs. "As if there is not a massive amount of fentanyl and other drugs coming between the ports of entry."

"The narrative of 90% coming to the ports has been changed a little bit in that because of the downturn over the the January time frame," responded Lines. "48% of the fentanyl's being intercepted between the ports and 52% at the ports. To combat that narrative, Border Patrol has now had the opportunity, because they're not spending 1.57 hours processing each individual, and so they are now on the board being able to provide national security and border security."

Customs and Border Protections tells KAWC it has seen an increase in drug busts at its checkpoints, but says it cannot speculate as to whether the drugs entered the country through a port, or via a different route.

Committee criticism

The Judiciary Committee weren't the only members of Congress in Yuma Thursday. Rep. Raúl Grijalva spent his day in Yuma's South County, for a visit he says he planned long before the hearing was announced.

Congressman Grijalva told KAWC it's a trip, he believes, the Republicans should have made as well.

“Never once did they speak to the people on the ground. Never once did they go and talk to Amanda Aguirre at the Regional Health Center. No, nor did they speak to the mayor and elected officials of the communities that are right on the border. Nor did they go and see how nonprofits, faith organizations, the Salvation Army are dealing with the humanitarian crisis that they're confronting. And where is it concentrated? It's concentrated in South County, " he said.

"The reality is that that mayor in San Luis, that mayor and council, that mayor and council in Somerton, and other communities are the ones that are having to be the first responders.”

San Luis Mayor Nieves Riedel also took a dim view of the hearing. In an interview Friday with NPR's Here & Now she said she thinks nothing will come of it.

"No value whatsoever, if these people and I'm talking about Republicans and Democrats, really care about what's going on with this issue, which is illegal immigration, they will sit down at the table and talk," Riedel told NPR's Peter O'Dowd.

"And I know there's a fix. You can fix everything except death. They don't want to because this is a good political hot potato they can throw at each other back and forth."

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee declined to participate in the hearing, saying they weren't given enough notice to rearrange previous commitments, so only Republican representative attended.

Rep. Grijalva told us, his colleagues didn't come because they knew what would happen.

“The Democrats on the Judiciary Committee that didn't come, said so. They said we don't want to be part of that, we don’t want to be props for Jim Jordan and his crew and we don't want to be part of the circus," he said.

Punchbowl News reports Democrats plan their own hearing next month.