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.