U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw tapped to lead GOP response on Mexican drug cartels

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, joins other members of the GOP at a news conference after touring the border in El Paso on Nov. 22, 2022. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre For The Texas Tribune, Ivan Pierre Aguirre For The Texas Tribune)

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw alarmed the Mexican president and Democrats earlier this year when he proposed using military force to fight drug cartels. Now he’s going to be leading House Republican efforts on tackling the criminal organizations.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tapped the Houston Republican on Friday to lead a task force on how to deal with Mexican drug cartels. The task force, expected to include members of several committees with purview over border and criminal justice issues, will focus on researching cartel activity and writing legislation to fight cartels and their impact on cross-border traffic.

“The cartels have operational control over our southern border, facilitate and take advantage of our immigration crisis, and are killing tens of thousands of Americans every year with fentanyl,” Crenshaw said in a statement.

Republicans have attacked Biden administration border policies for exposing vulnerable migrants to exploitative and dangerous cartel activity. Crenshaw and several other Republicans have been calling for using greater force to combat the criminal organizations, though there has been disagreement on how to do so.

Politico first reported on Crenshaw’s appointment to lead the cartel task force.

Crenshaw’s appointment came the day after the end of Title 42 — a provision allowing the Biden administration to expedite expulsions along the border — and the passage of House Republicans’ border security bill. The bill requires the secretaries of Homeland Security and State to write a report on whether drug cartels should be classified as foreign terrorist organizations but otherwise focuses on restricting asylum options and improving border infrastructure.

Previous versions of the bill would have explicitly designated major cartels as terrorist organizations — a measure backed by Texas’ Republican Reps. Chip Roy of Austin and Tony Gonzales of San Antonio.

“This common-sense policy would have paved the way for law enforcement to better seize their financial assets and strengthen criminal penalties on cartel operators,” Gonzales said in a statement.

But Crenshaw was opposed, fearing doing so would strengthen asylum cases for migrants smuggled across the border by cartels.

“Immigration experts argue this designation could actually make our immigration crisis worse, by giving millions more migrants a credible fear claim to asylum because they can say they’re fleeing terrorists,” Crenshaw tweeted Monday. “And we know that’s what the Biden Administration would do — justify these asylum claims.”

Crenshaw had previously introduced legislation that would have allowed the use of military force against cartels without designating them as terrorist organizations. But Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador blasted the idea as an attack on his country’s sovereignty.

“We are not going to permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less that a government’s armed forces intervene,” López Obrado said during a March news conference. “In addition to being irresponsible, it is an offense to the people of Mexico.”

The Biden administration has also dismissed the idea of using military force outside of its borders. The administration did send 1,500 additional military personnel to the southern border this month in anticipation of the end of Title 42, but the troops are mostly focused on processing migrants and other support for Customs and Border Protection.

Using the military to fight cartels has been on Crenshaw’s mind for a while. And leading the task force will give him a platform he’s been gunning for since late last year.

Crenshaw’s effort to use the military was one of his top agenda items when he made his pitch to chair the House Homeland Security Committee, he said during a January interview before committee assignments were finalized. Crenshaw thought himself a strong candidate to chair the committee as a veteran and the only contender representing a border state. The position would have given him considerable influence on border security legislation, one of House Republicans’ top policy priorities.

But the chair went to Rep. Mark Green, a Tennessee member of the Freedom Caucus. Crenshaw speculated that he lost the chairmanship as part of a deal McCarthy made with far-right Republicans to secure his speakership in January — speculation that the Freedom Caucus appeared to confirm during a fundraising event, according to Politico.

McCarthy’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the chair assignments.

Disclosure: Politico has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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