US official sees no link between Chinese migrants at border and fentanyl

By Ted Hesson and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. law enforcement official on Wednesday said he sees no link between a rise in Chinese migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and illicit fentanyl entering the United States, in response to questioning by a Republican lawmaker.

Steven Cagen, an assistant director with the investigative arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said during a congressional hearing that his agency had not established such ties.

"Our investigations and intelligence show that those are two separate situations," he told Republican Representative Clay Higgins, who had asked if Chinese migrants might be connecting with criminal networks.

Republicans have repeatedly tried to link the trafficking of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, to the record number of migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally since Democratic President Joe Biden took office in 2021. The vast majority of fentanyl seized at the southwest border is intercepted at legal ports of entry.

About 4,300 Chinese migrants have been caught crossing the border illegally through the first five months of fiscal year 2023, which began on Oct. 1, more than double the previous year's total.

Republicans, who took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January, have pledged more oversight of the Biden administration. No Democrats attended the House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Wednesday in Pharr, Texas, near the border.

Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz, who also testified, urged lawmakers to stiffen consequences for crossing illegally, calling the current migration levels "a crisis situation" in some areas.

Washington has been seeking greater help from Beijing in stemming the illicit flow of fentanyl "precursor" chemicals from China, but U.S. officials have told Reuters that Chinese counterparts have been reluctant to cooperate as relations between the two countries have soured.

The drug, which is 100 times more potent than morphine, has fueled a surge in U.S. opioid overdose deaths in recent years.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Michael Martina in Washington; Editing by Bill Berkrot)