Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Border Caucus members signal shift in immigration approach

Brownsville Herald
September 7, 2013
by Ty Johnson

There were nearly enough members of Congress in Port Isabel Saturday to start a new House subcommittee as five Border Caucus representatives met to discuss immigration reform with the public.

Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, organized the event, which attracted more than 50 members of the public to a forum where residents peppered the congressmen with questions about border walls, paths to citizenship and the political battles holding back the nation from comprehensive reform.
The five Democrats fielded questions that centered mostly on the language of the bill the U.S. Senate passed earlier this summer.

That bill was amended many times in a manner that some Democrats said put too much emphasis on border security while not providing enough options for undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

Many at the forum wore T-shirts or carried signs in opposition to the proposed border fence, which is being completed across South Texas’ border with Mexico.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, who represents McAllen and Texas’ 28th District, called the wall “a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem,” likening it to the Great Wall of China and other failed attempts throughout history during which countries built physical barriers to keep intruders out.
Scott Nicol, a McAllen resident, made the case that the only thing the fence truly prevents from crossing is animals.

Nicol, the chairman of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, said he was concerned about language in the Senate bill that he said allowed the federal government to suspend laws within 100 miles of the border.

Without environmental legislation to hold things in check, he was worried animals and plant life along the border would suffer.

“Why waive the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act if you’re not planning on violating them?” he pointed out following the meeting.

The fence also creates issues from a property rights standpoint, he said, referring to examples throughout Brownsville where the fence cut through property.

During the forum, Cuellar pointed out the disproportion between the fence’s cost and its effectiveness.

Cuellar said the price per mile to use technology – cameras, sensors and the like – to secure the border cost about one-eighth of that to build a fence per mile.

He also noted the testimony of an expert in Washington who admitted the fence, on average, deterred those attempting to cross by about 15 seconds.

The public’s questions about the border fence led into a discussion about the so-called “trigger” in the Senate legislation that calls for increased border security before the implementation of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Cuellar said that to the majority of Congress, border security means more boots on the ground and a fence, the construction of which began in 2006.

Vela, speaking after the meeting, said he felt that while border security and immigration reform were connected, they should be discussed and legislated separately.

“We of course need to be mindful of border security, but I don’t think those two need to be conditioned on each other,” he said.

What he does think should be factored into the immigration debate, however, is international commerce.

“(The debate) needs to include a discussion about the significant trade relationship we have with Mexico,” he said.

Vela has recently led a shift in strategy for House Republicans aiming to bring about immigration reform by moving away from discussions about divided families and deportations to talk about jobs and the impact the United States’ third-largest trading partner has on the economy.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who represents the El Paso area, said he felt those who would be swayed by moral arguments have already chosen their side, noting that Vela’s efforts to show how Mexico directly impacts states is the congressmen’s best bet to bring about immigration reform in the near future.

“It connects members of Congress with their interdependence on Mexico,” he said, noting that Democrats will try to sell immigration reform as the key to job growth for districts from Ohio and Tennessee to New York.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, who represents the Nogales, Ariz., area, said the dialogue concerning immigration needed to shift to jobs, noting that House Speaker John Boehner’s Ohio district alone depends on Mexico directly for about 125,000 jobs.

“It’s got to be about how it creates jobs,” he said, again referencing the need to change reformists’ approach to immigration.

The problem facing Congress now, though, is time, Rep. Gene Green of Houston said.

Noting that there are only 39 days left in this year’s session, Green suggested that budget talks, debt ceiling debates and a vote concerning military strikes against Syria have the potential to dominate discussions through December.

“We may end up spending two weeks on (Syria),” he said, pointing out how the debate on whether to intervene in the Middle East has taken congressional focus away from other matters. “It’s kind of sucked the wind out of other issues.”

Still, Vela and the Border Caucus have not given up on the push for reform this session, as the representatives and others will be in Grijalva’s district next weekend to again bring congressional representatives to the border.

Congress reconvenes Monday.


Friday, September 6, 2013

The Complex Life of Border Towns

National Journal
September 5, 2013
by Elahe Izadi

EAGLE PASS, TEXAS—Sam Farhat grew up in this small south Texas town where he now owns Cowboy Corral, a clothing shop where customers peruse racks of jeans, belts, and shirts while Farhat—a big man of Palestinian heritage wearing a cowboy hat—answers their questions in Spanish.

Farhat's business depends upon the foot traffic that legally enters the United States from Mexico, just blocks from his downtown storefront. Outside, people leaving discount perfume, dress, and shoe stores carry shopping bags as they cross the bridge on foot, walking past cars lined up waiting to cross the border.

But talk in Washington of tightening border security in towns like Eagle Pass as part of broader immigration reforms has locals weary. "That's not going to help business, that's for sure," Farhat said. "It's already hard enough for people to come across the border."

For residents in Eagle Pass and other nearby towns, the border is not a political topic or an abstract concept—the Rio Grande River that separates Mexico from the United States is in their backyard. Many of the ideas under consideration, from border fencing to additional Border Patrol agents and even drones overhead, will have a direct impact here.

"Those of us who live along the border want to be just as safe and secure in our beds as anyone else does, but we want a solution that works," said Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego, whose district includes Eagle Pass. "We don't want a political solution, we want a practical solution."

That may not be easy. In many ways, Eagle Pass represents the complexity of living in small border towns, where life can be woven together tightly with those of neighboring communities in Mexico.
Residents here cross the border regularly into the town of Piedras Negras, Mexico, to visit families and friends. Lines can get long on both sides of the bridge around Christmas and Easter. Communities along the border often refer to their "sister cities" on the Mexican side, and mayors and local agencies have working relationships. What happens on one side often affects the other.

"Blood lines don't stop," said Laura Allen, the Republican county judge in nearby Val Verde County, which includes the town of Del Rio. "Relationships don't stop at the river."

Securing the Border

In terms of security, Border Patrol agents are a more common sight in town than local police, and they often help in responding to emergencies. And the town already has some border fencing; in 2008, Eagle Pass was the first town the federal government sued in its effort to increase border fencing, drawing fierce opposition from town officials and residents.

If Congress passes an immigration bill, many of the security elements could intensify. The immigration bill passed by the Senate essentially calls for instituting a military-like presence along the border, spending $46 billion to double the number of Border Patrol agents to 40,000, build 700 miles of border fencing, and bolster technology such as drones to increase surveillance.

Border-security legislation unanimously passed out of the House Homeland Security Committee, authored by Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, takes a different approach. Before a dollar amount is dictated, the bill calls on the Homeland Security Department to first develop a border-security plan—subject to congressional approval—that would eliminate 90 percent of illegal border crossings within five years. Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee cosponsored the bill, and other Democrats have signaled they find the language easier to work with than the Senate border-security provision. It's expected to be one of the first pieces of immigration legislation that House takes up after recess.

The congressional district with the longest stretch of the Mexican-U.S. border includes Eagle Pass. It's a swing district that President Obama lost but Gallego won in 2012. Gallego says border security is not a partisan issue in his district.

"One of the frustrations that people along the border have is so many people who are trying to drive the debate on border policy and border security are people who don't live on the border, who've never been to the border, and yet they're trying to dictate the terms by which we do border security," he said.

Indeed, there is a widespread sentiment here that people making political calculations about the border don't have sense of what daily life is like in border communities.

"They use the border, they see the area as a sword and a shield in politics, but we're human beings, we live down here," said Democratic State Rep. Poncho Nevarez, whose home is on the banks of the Rio Grande, so close that he can point to Mexico from his porch. His wife is Mexican, and his children take classes across the border.

"We shouldn't be pawns in this game to see who can get themselves elected because they can beat their chest more about how they secured the border," he said.

Unlike other parts of the border where violence from Mexico makes headlines, officials here say problems are comparatively tame, partially due to the presence of Border Patrol and state of affairs in neighboring Mexican cities.

"We're kind of the unseen area of the border here. You can go to El Paso, you can go to Loredo, but they don't have the same issues we have," Allen said. "Ask me when was the last time we had to shut down our bridge because violence spilled over from Mexico. It's not happening."

Border Patrol officials say they do apprehend people who commit serious crimes in the U.S. and cross back illegally. In the Del Rio border sector, 50 pounds of cocaine and 63,485 pounds of marijuana were seized by Border Patrol in fiscal 2012.

One major public-safety scare took place here last year, when more than 130 inmates broke out of a prison just over the border in Piedras Negras. Authorities at the time were concerned that prisoners could cross over to Eagle Pass, but it turns out that a Mexican drug cartel was likely behind the prison break, a tactic cartels use to replenish their ranks. Authorities found one suspected escapee this summer hiding in a home in Eagle Pass, but there was no other fallout.

Nevarez, who can point to the prison area from his yard, recalled rushing home after hearing of the break. But his fears were quickly allayed as he reasoned that many of those prisoners weren't going to cross into American soil, but rather stay in Mexico to work for the cartels.

Gallego says that people in border communities are united behind wanting to do something about the cartels and drug trade.

"The people coming here, even if they're coming here illegally, they're coming here to work in agriculture or construction," said Shawn Moran, vice president of National Border Patrol Council, a union representing Border Patrol agents. "But there is a large group that is coming here to sell drugs or be part of criminal gangs and commit crimes. We shouldn't overlook that in any sort of immigration reform."

The Border Patrol

Border Patrol and other federal agencies often constitute the most visible law enforcement in border communities. About 55,000 people live in the town and its outlying areas in Maverick County; Eagle Pass's police department numbered 76 in 2012.

Authorities won't release figures on the numbers of border agents designated for particular towns, but Eagle Pass and Del Rio are the two major towns in the Del Rio Border Patrol sector, which includes 210 miles of border and nearly 60,000 square miles of territory.There were 1,665 Border Patrol agents designated for this area in 2012, a figure that doesn't include Customs and Border Protection and other federal agents.

Nearly 87 percent of the nation's 21,394 Border Patrol agents come from the nine southwest border sectors. The Del Rio sector ranks in the middle in terms of the number of agents.

While Border Patrol agents are accepted as members of the community and regarded with respect, Gallego said some locals get frustrated with the checkpoints. Border Patrol checkpoints on roads extend far beyond the border; all motorists have to stop and answer questions related to their citizenship. A dog trained to detect drugs sniffs cars, and checkpoint stations are equipped with cameras, equipment to detect radioactive elements, and temporary holding cells for suspected illegal immigrants.

In 2012, the Border Patrol apprehended 21,720 illegal immigrants in the Del Rio sector, the highest number in the sector since 2007 and much higher than the El Paso sector's 9,678 apprehensions.

Moran says the border can be secured with fewer than the additional 20,000 agents called for in the Senate bill. His group pushed for an amendment by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that would have revamped the pay system to allow flexibility for agents working overtime and covering shifts.

"It's usually during the busiest times, and when the smugglers know when we're in between shifts, and that's when they try to make their moves," Moran said.

The addition of more Border Patrol agents could have an economic impact in these communities, with an influx of jobs and dollars spent locally. Some ranchers and others living further from the border also want more agents to monitor those traversing their properties as they make their way inland. But many officials close to the border are skeptical that the federal government will be able to fully fund and sustain a doubling of Border Patrol agents.

"If you're telling me you're going to double the number of government jobs in my community and if you're going to allow these people to contribute to the economy, they're going to eat out at restaurants and shop at stores and buy homes—from an economic development perspective, I'm for that," Gallego said. "But that's not a border-security perspective. We haven't done anything for border security when we've done that."

Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey English Cantu said that while there is a need to "have a great presence," he would like to see resources poured into Customs and Border Protection, which operate the official entry points into the United States and where lines can back up. "We continue to see ports of entries where people are smuggling drugs across because there isn't the necessary infrastructure," he said. "These are the things that need to be ultimately addressed."

Farhat and others in Eagle Pass would like to see more resources poured into shortening the lines at the official ports of entry, which are operated by Customs and Border Protection, not Border Patrol. Tolls collected at the town's two points of entry make up more than a quarter of Eagle Pass's budget revenues.

The Fence

The fence, which once drew outrage in these communities, now attracts a level of amusement.
In Eagle Pass, it's more than 10 feet high, cuts through a city golf course, and includes openings throughout. "If those folks in Ohio were to see this, they'd say, 'Is this what you're wasting my tax dollars on?' " Nevarez said.

In Del Rio, American land sits on the other side of an approximately 2-mile portion of the fence, and Allen asks whether the American government has created a Demilitarized Zone. It stops at a low, barbed-wire fence on private property. Locals point to the fence gates, with extra horizontal bars, as places people climb over.

"The fence was not a good thing," Allen said. "We would have liked to see that money put to use for other things because, like I said, I can very easily show you where people walk around it, so why did we spend all that money?"

Between 2006 and 2009, the federal government allocated $2.4 billion for construction of 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicular fences, with costs ranging between $400,000 and $15.1 million per mile, depending on the location, fence material, topography and kind of fence, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report.

But Border Patrol officials point to the fence as a useful tool in helping to manage crossings; agents can target their patrols better since they know where the entry points are. Moran says the fence has been very useful in slowing down the traffic across the border, particularly vehicular crossings.

"But no fence is going to stop people who are determined to get into this country. You can't have a fence with gaps if you want it to be effective," Moran said. "The technology is great and it's an asset, but no drone and no fence or whatever made an arrest. Those help us do our jobs."

There's also a sense in border communities that the fence makes them appear to be bad neighbors.

"If we take this militia approach to our border, what kind of message are we sending to our sister country? I don't like that message," Allen said. "Would we do that on the border with Canada? I really don't feel like we would."


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Valley Mayor Fears Proposed Immigration Border Fence will Clog City

FOX news RGV
September 4, 2013

Born and raised in Starr county, Mayor Ruben Villareal has seen Rio Grande City flow along immigration tides.

But a current issue affects a staple to his city.

“This type of construction is a huge building block of what this city needs to become,” says Mayor Ruben Villareal, Rio Grande City, TX.

Mayor Villareal is talking about a treatment plant that relies on the Rio Grande to supply 700 gallons of water a day to the city.

“Is this different than other cities, this pump? We are one of two pump stations in the entire Rio Grande Valley that I know about that actually draw water straight from the Rio Grande,” says Villareal.

The current senate immigration reform bill calls for around 700 miles of border fencing. Half of which is already in place.

Up until now Starr County has been free of this, but if passed, 18-foot steel columns erected along the banks of this section of the Rio Grande is a very possible reality. As well as a major concern.

“This isn’t a curveball; this is more of a sinker or knuckle ball. When we made the design for this project it was about six years ago, and the idea of having a border fence was so farfetched. It would be like me saying, ‘we’re going to take a trip to the moon and back,” says Villareal.

“With the Rio Grande about a half mile away, the city relies on several irrigation pathways like this to prevent flooding, but mayor Villareal says that with the border fence wedged in between pathways like this and the river, a major concern is that fence becoming a costly obstacle,”

“All of Rio Grande city’s water, it kind of slopes down, everything feeds towards the river. My running and constant worry is that you’ll have some sort of blockage against that fence, because all it is pipes,” adds Villareal.

“The hydraulic modeling that was performed for the proposed fence segments assumed some blockage due to debris build-up. However, CBP contends that from a practical perspective the likelihood of occurrence is small.”

In response, customs and border protection acknowledged the risk for debris build-up but say “the likelihood of occurrence is small.”

“Historically, border fencing installed within the Rio Grande river floodplain has had no debris build-up issues or adversely impacted the floodwaters during a flooding event.” -CBP southwest border
That border fencing currently in place has not, “adversely impacted floodwaters during a flooding event.” But mayor Villareal doesn’t agree with facts based on a terrain that is ever-changing.

“Rivers meander, constantly, the bank that you see here not too long ago was probably about 100 yards further north of us.”

Much like the Rio Grande that hugs south Texas, immigration reform is a constant evolution.
This mayor believes a solution with lasting power needs to have its eyes set on tomorrow.

“I have problems when people tell me that an antiquated, something from the 12th century, that has been tried before all over the world, and has failed throughout the world as well.”

Mayor Villareal has had several talks with senator john Cornyn about this issue. The senator’s office reached out to Fox 2, saying “Sen. Cornyn offered an amendment to the Gang of 8 bill that would require DHS to consult with local leaders before any plans for fencing moved forward.”

He has offered an amendment of the grand of 8 bill that would require department of homeland security to consult with local leaders before any plans for fencing moved forward.

While that was not ultimately adopted in the Senate bill, Sen. Cornyn will continue to work with his colleagues to ensure that his amendment is part of any border security legislation that is considered this Congress.”

That while it was not adopted he will continue to endure that his amendment is part of an border security legislation that is considered.

Those talks will continue tomorrow. Senator Cornyn will be in the Rio Grande Valley, meeting with local officials, including mayor Villareal, about a smarter border strategy.