EXCLUSIVE: Sen. Bill Hagerty returned late Friday from a visit to Mexico and Guatemala, where he met with top officials of both countries a month before Vice President Kamala Harris is due to make a similar trip -- with the Tennessee senator warning that it is vital the U.S. treats the border crisis with a sense of urgency that he believes is currently lacking.
"I went because this is the most urgent national security and economic problem we face as a nation, and we need to convey that sense of urgency to the leadership of Mexico and Guatemala," Hagerty, R-Tenn., told Fox News in an interview Saturday.
"This needs to be fixed now," he said. "This isn't something to take our time with, to have conference after conference and endless bureaucrat meetings, we need to do something about it now."
Hagerty, a former businessman who served as U.S. ambassador to Japan and helped secure a trade agreement between the two countries, met with the president and foreign minister in Guatemala, and Mexico’s foreign and economic ministers -- along with American and Mexican business leaders.
Harris, who was put in charge of leading diplomatic efforts to resolve the border crisis in March, has yet to visit either country although she has held "virtual" meetings with leaders of both Guatemala and Mexico. She is due to visit both countries at the beginning of next month.
Hagerty said he was told by representatives of those countries that cartels are getting stronger and more powerful, partly because they are able to market messaging coming from the U.S. about an easier ride and better benefits for illegal immigrants in the U.S.
"When they hear news of perhaps a $15 minimum wage, $1,200 stimulus checks for illegal immigrants, this is the place to come if you want to get your COVID-19 shot because they don't have COVID vaccines down there yet -- all these messages are being translated into marketing materials by these cartels, these coyotes to go prey on vulnerable people to create a sense of hope, a sense of urgency, a false sense of opportunity that they're going to come here and make a minimum of $15 an hour, and they're going to be treated a very special way here, better than they're being treated at home," he said.
The number of migrants coming to the border has spiked dramatically since President Biden took office, with more than 172,000 migrant encounters in March alone and a record number of migrant children that quickly overwhelmed facilities. Similar numbers are expected for April.
Critics have blamed the rollback of Trump-era policies by the Biden administration -- namely, the construction of the wall at the southern border and the ending of diplomatic agreements like those with Northern Triangle countries and the Remain-in-Mexico policy, which kept migrants south of the border while they awaited their hearings.
The Biden administration has dismissed accusations that those policies, including a narrowing of interior enforcement, is to blame and has instead focused on "root causes" in Central America like poverty, climate, unemployment and violence. It has proposed a $4 billion investment in the region, including an initial $310 million in aid announced recently.
While Hagerty emphasized the "pull factors" from the U.S., he also did not downplay the importance of the "push factors" from Central America -- but was skeptical of sending money to non-governmental organizations, who he said the leaders in those countries do not trust and often cause more problems.
"They would rather see assistance-in-kind, financing, working with the private sector to buld real infrastructure, and they would rather see solutions that are long-term in nature," he said.
Areas of potential cooperation for Hagerty include law enforcement training, developing the National Guard and increasing technology to detect drugs like fentanyl and the movement of people such as night vision and aerial surveillance like that used at the U.S. border. He noted that Mexico is also dealing with security threats dealing with unknown migrants crossing their border.
He argued instead that a key to the region’s development is private sector investment, but qualified by saying that can only occur if those governments can get crime under control and establish law and order.
"We need to convey that the business community is only going to invest and we should only support projects where the private sector will actually to step in and create real jobs and economic opportunity, but that’s only going to happen when you have the certainty of rule of law," he said.
He also pointed to jobs being restored from Communist China which, if they aren’t coming to the U.S., could go to Central America instead -- where it can solve the unemployment crisis that is one of the drivers of the migration crisis.
"I want to see as many jobs as we possibly can restore to America, those jobs have been lost over the years to China I want to see those come back to America, but to the extent they don't come to America, rather than have them go to some other place in South East Asia, I'd rather them go to Central America," he said.
But he was also told by the top officials in those countries that "when America speaks, the world listens" and said that the messaging encouraging migration needs to end, while acting to secure America's border.
"And the pieces are in place for us to do that in terms of greater law enforcement cooperation, building infrastructure on our side to seal the border, turning off this magnet that we've created here in America so cartels and coyotes don't have the ability to market to the vulnerable that is a false promise and isn’t really true," he said.
The Biden administration has been touting some success in recent days as it has cleared out many of the crowded Border Patrol centers that were packed through March and much of April, sending many of the child migrants to Health and Human Services (HHS) facilities instead. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has cautioned that while there was good news, there are still hundreds of children coming across the border every day.
Hagerty, speaking to Fox, emphasized that this crisis at the border is one that continues to pose real threats to all of America -- not just border towns.
"This is an urgent concern, this is something that is creating huge problems in my home state, we've had an increase in drug trafficking, we’re having an increase in deaths by overdose, we have unaccompanied children moving into our state, our schools are being told to prepare to receive them, our hospital system is trying to figure out how much capacity they need, neighborhoods don't know who is coming," he said. "The crisis and the anxiety that's being created here in America is very real."