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Speaker McCarthy leads first border trip in his new role. Critics call it a photo op

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks to the media following the opening ceremonies at the World Ag Expo on Tuesday in Tulare, Calif.
Craig Kohlruss
The Fresno Bee/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks to the media following the opening ceremonies at the World Ag Expo on Tuesday in Tulare, Calif.

Updated February 17, 2023 at 10:32 AM ET

With southern Arizona as his backdrop, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy visited the U.S.-Mexico border for the first time since taking on his new leadership role.

McCarthy was joined on the congressional delegation trip by four House Republican freshmen, including Arizona Rep. Juan Ciscomani.

The group visited the Tucson region for a briefing and aerial tour from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Then they held a press conference at a ranch in Arizona's Cochise County where McCarthy said that the Republican-led House would tackle improvements to border security.

"We've got a lot of ideas inside Congress, which was different than the Congress before. We're not just going to write the bill and put it onto the floor. We're going to listen to the people that are on the border," he said speaking in front of a portion of the wall that separates the U.S from Mexico.

While McCarthy served as the House Republican leader he led three member delegations to the Texas border region in November andApril of 2022 and previously in 2021.

A senior Republican aide tells NPR the Arizona trip highlights a different section of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border to illustrate the breadth of problems in the region where border communities are facing strained demands.

McCarthy's trip also showcases the next generation of lawmakers who could take the lead on border security and immigration legislation, the aide said.

Ciscomani, who gave the Spanish-language rebuttal to President Biden's State of the Union address last week, is the first Mexican immigrant representing Arizona to be elected to Congress. Freshman House Reps. Jen Kiggans of Virginia and Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Oregon are also expected to join.

Critics, including some immigration advocates and House Democrats, rebuked the plans

They say House Republicans have spread disinformation through these border efforts, face a failed legislative path on related reforms and have used the trips as photo ops.

Douglas Rivlin, director of communications for immigration advocacy group America's Voice, argues the GOP border visits serve largely as dog whistles to what he calls MAGA Republican extremism.

"So instead of actually legislating, the speaker is doing yet another border photo op to send a message to his MAGA critics that he's opposed to immigration as much as they are and get himself on Fox News," said Rivlin, a former Democratic congressional staffer. "Nativism has become the heart of MAGA Republicanism and the speaker and the Republican Party are in their grips."

Thursday's visit comes as House Republicans have ramped up field hearings in the border region since taking control of the lower chamber. Several House panels have jurisdiction over the issue.

A week from today, Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, will lead a House Judiciary Committee field hearing in Yuma, Ariz., more than 200 miles west of McCarthy's Thursday visit. So far, only Republicans have confirmed they'll be attending next week's hearing. For now, Democratic members tell NPR they have declined to attend the southern border field hearings that are planned.

Earlier this week, subcommittees for House Oversight and House Energy and Commerce panels held a joint field hearingin the Weslaco, Texas border community near McAllen with Republican and Democratic lawmakers in attendance. More field hearings in the border region are expected in the future, the senior Republican aide told NPR.

Already, the full House Judiciary and Oversight committees held their own Capitol hearings on the border in their first two weeks of meetings.

A Democrat who represents part of the border area the group will visit calls the trip 'theater'

Thursday's visit included parts of Ciscomani's district, as well as that of Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who represents most of the Arizona southern border with more than 350 miles in his district.

Grijalva, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said he had also planned for his own visit Thursday to a port of entry in Douglas, Ariz., along with a mayor of the border community. He hopes to highlight the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law that directed more than $3 billion in improvements at several land ports of entry along the country's northern and southern borders.

As for the Republican visits, Grijalva argues "they are not here to talk about solutions at all, they are here to do theater." And while he concedes the border is facing challenges and crisis points, he argues these GOP efforts won't help.

"If people want to be serious about those discussions, I think they're valid to have," he tells NPR. But he expects Republican legislative proposals will ultimately be "narrow and extremist."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 16, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of the story stated that no Democrats attended a congressional field hearing in Weslaco, Texas. In fact, some Democrats attended.
Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.