Your Local News | Allentown, Bethlehem & Easton
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Lehigh Valley Election News

PA-7 Primary: GOP candidates discuss America's border security

When It Comes to Immigration Where Does the Biden Administration Stand?
Getty Images
Migrants are loaded onto a bus by U.S. Border Patrol agents after being detained when they crossed into the United States from Mexico on June 01, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. The location is in an area where migrants frequently turn themselves in to Border Patrol and ask for asylum after crossing the border. The U.S. has seen record number of crossings at the Mexican border in recent months.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The three Republican candidates seeking the party's nomination for Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District visited the Univest Public Public Media Center for one-on-one interviews with LehighValleyNews.com. The conversations are the basis of a five-part series this week focusing on policy issues ahead of the April 23 primary election. U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, who is unchallenged in the Democratic primary, declined to participate.

Today's issue: The border (Fifth of five parts)
Part I: Reproductive rights
Part II: Foreign affairs
Part III: The economy
Part IV: The budget

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Months after illegal crossings at America's southern border reached a record high, border control has emerged as a pressing topic in the 2024 election cycle.

Even though Republicans and Democrats have called the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border a crisis, Congress has proven unable to pass legislation to address the problem.

So LehighValleyNews.com asked the three candidates in the Republican primary for Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District — state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, R-Lehigh; Lt. Col. Kevin Dellicker of the Air National Guard; and Maria Montero, a member of former Gov. Tom Corbett's administration — what actions they would take to address the issue, if elected.

On the Issues: Ryan Mackenzie on the border


Since the U.S.-Mexico border reopened following the pandemic in 2020, illegal border crossings have been on the rise. U.S. Border Control and Customs arrested nearly 250,000 individuals along the Mexican border in December, the highest amount on record since the government started tracking monthly arrests.

Both political parties acknowledge stricter controls are needed along the border. After months of negotiations, a $20.2 billion bipartisan deal emerged that would have reworked the asylum process, increased the number of people who could be held in detention centers, hired more Border Patrol agents, created more visas for legal immigration and attempted to crack down on fentanyl.

Although the package was endorsed by the Border Patrol union and had the blessing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, the legislation proved to be dead on arrival. Former President Donald Trump and House Speaker Mike Johnson criticized the terms of the deal, saying conservatives should not vote for the package unless all their demands were met.

What they said

Mackenzie and Dellicker said congressional Republicans were correct to abandon the deal. The package would have authorized the president to shut down the border when daily illegal crossings exceed 5,000 a day. But at that rate, they said, the population of Philadelphia could illegally enter the country every year without shutting down the border.

Mackenzie said Congress should be finding ways to work toward the strong elements of the proposal that drew widespread support.

"It shouldn't be that we are held hostage in exchange for the things that would secure America," he said.

Mackenzie pointed to his experience as a state lawmaker as proof of his ability to get tough legislation passed.

On the Issues: Kevin Dellicker on the border

In 2019, the General Assembly passed his Construction Industry Employee Verification Act, which required employers in the construction industry to run their employees through the federal E-Verify system. The software cross-checks workers against Homeland Security and Social Security databases in an effort to identify if any are illegally in the country.

Dellicker said Congress needs to tighten up the asylum process, saying the border presents the nation's largest national security threat.

It's too easy for people illegally entering the country to be allowed to avoid detention, he said, adding that asylum seekers know how to game the system by saying specific words or phrases. More than 90% of asylum seekers are tracked by the Department of Homeland Security but are not held in detention centers, he said.

Dellicker offered support for Trump's Remain in Mexico policy. Under the program, asylum seekers encountered at the border were ordered to await their court hearings in Mexico.

The program effectively disqualified people from Central America and South America from seeking asylum at the border, saying they needed to seek asylum in one of the countries they passed through to reach the United States. The Biden administration ended the Remain in Mexico program in 2022.

"These cases should be heard before people come in (our) country, not once they come into our country, and now they're released into the interior of our country where they can really do whatever they want," Dellicker said.

On the Issues: Maria Montero on the border

Montero said more stringent safeguards are needed at the border to stop the illegal flow of fentanyl and other drugs into the country, noting that overdoses are the leading cause of death for Pennsylvanians under the age of 40.

Similarly, more actions are needed to prevent suspected terrorists and hostile agents from illegally entering the United States, she said.

In Fiscal Year 2023, Border Patrol agents arrested 169 people at the southern border whose names matched individuals on the terrorism watch list, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Matches do not mean the individual is a suspected terrorist; they could have ties to someone being sought by the government or a different individual with the same name. However, the arrests are the highest number on record.

Montero, whose father legally immigrated to the U.S. from Peru, said she would support Trump's calls for a border wall in some places and technologies that identify border breaches.

"I think individuals that are coming here illegally and committing these crimes, they need to be held accountable for (their) actions, and that means they're deported," Montero said.

Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District represents all of Carbon, Lehigh and Northampton counties plus a sliver of Monroe County. It is among the nation's most competitive districts, with nearly equal numbers of registered Democratic and Republican voters. The House has been narrowly divided in recent years, making control of PA-7 crucial to the parties' efforts to hold a majority.