The Washington Post

Along border, preparing to live with the real-world consequences of immigration debate

Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Texas) meets with constituents Aug. 20 in San Elizario, Tex. Gallego represents the largest House district south of Alaska that isn’t a state. It stretches for more than 800 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Christ Chavez/For The Washington Post)

There are 36 congressional districts in Texas, but the 23rd is a geographic monster that swallows up almost a quarter of the state, stretching from little towns such as this one east of El Paso to the western suburbs of San Antonio. One former congressman who represented the people here used to say that he had to cross three climates and two time zones to get from one end to the other.

The district has about 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border, the longest stretch in any House district, making it the place where immigration reform would be most deeply felt. People here know that immigration has consumed considerable political capital in Washington and they are watching apprehensively, preparing to live with the real-world consequences of whatever decision Congress makes. They are not encouraged by what they’re hearing, particularly about securing the border.

“The problem is, you’ve got this huge Congress and most of them don’t live on the border and they’re the ones who are going to decide what we do,” said El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles.

Frustration here stems from realities on the ground. There are one, two, sometimes three layers of fencing along the border, or the terrain is too treacherous to cross, so people don’t want Congress to put up more fencing. Members of the U.S. Border Patrol stand post every few thousand feet along some stretches of the divide, so locals don’t want Congress to send more agents.

They say that lawmakers should instead consider the economic benefits of legal immigration. About 20 percent of the $500 billion traded annually between the United States and Mexico passes through ports of entry along this part of the border, and locals say the numbers would climb dramatically if trucks carrying goods could cross faster. More than 100,000 jobs in the region rely on the lawful movement of people, goods and services between the two countries, and officials predict that even more business and jobs would be created if Congress made it easier for guest workers to cross, or if illegal immigrants could come out of the shadows.

“It would seem to me that the key to immigration reform is providing some type of work visas to shuffle out those who are just here to work and many times want to go home,” Wiles said. “They want to come, work, support their families and eventually go home.”

Cindy Ramos-Davidson, chief executive of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that Congress “gets so wrapped up in the process of people moving that they forget about the actual element of how that affects people. They throw all this money at drones and helicopters and such when they could instead spend it on legally moving people back and forth across the border.

“Anybody who lives outside of a border community needs to come here and see how commerce and trade flows across the bridges,” she said. “All of these rules and regulations that apply to the border are made back East and many of the people have never seen what those policies do to bottleneck the borders.”

As Republicans have tightened their hold on the Texas congressional delegation, the 23rd remains a uniquely volatile political territory, switching parties five times in the past 20 years. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the district last year by three percentage points; Sen. Ted Cruz (R) won it by six. It is represented by Pete Gallego (D), who won the seat by five points last year and has been trying to assure constituents that Congress will do something about immigration soon.

“If immigration reform doesn’t happen, that doesn’t say good things about our democracy, that everybody wants it but Congress couldn’t pass it,” Gallego said during a recent dinner meeting with constituents.

Heads around the table nodded, but folks didn’t seem as confident as the congressman; they worry that whatever Congress does may be the wrong thing.

Wiles commands a jurisdiction of about 1,000 square miles and his 260 deputies are often called upon to assist the U.S. Border Patrol with immigration-related crimes, forcing them to abandon neighborhood patrols. Federal budget cuts cost Wiles more than $1 million in funding for an anti-narcotics unit and a school anti-violence program, so the push and pull from Washington is frustrating.

The state of U.S. immigration

See how immigration trends have shifted over the years.

“There have been many congressmen who want to come down and take a picture with you at the border crossings. I don’t do that anymore, because we never see any results,” Wiles said.

He said that other places along the border might need more agents and a fence, “but when they put one up here, they just put it up next to two other fences. That’s a waste of money.”

About 200 miles southeast, “waste of money” is the same phrase Val Beard used to describe the possibility of new fencing and agents. She’s the judge in Brewster County, home to about 10,000 residents who rely on tourist money spent at the Big Bend National Park, a treacherous stretch of the border where few people would ever cross.

“If you’ve been out here, you know that a wall is completely preposterous. It’s not workable,” she said.

Farther east in Del Rio, Val Verde County Judge Laura Allen, a Republican, said that there’s no need for more fencing or border agents in her small town but that if Congress wants to send more people, she hopes the Border Patrol might expand their local training facility. Mostly Allen fears that the partisan bickering in Washington is adversely influencing state and local leaders, making it more difficult for government at any level to solve problems.

“When you’re sitting in Washington and you’re looking at these numbers and trying to sort all this out, it’s not the same when you’re standing down here,” she said.

As a freshman member of the minority party in the House, Gallego knows he has minimal influence on the immigration debate in the GOP-controlled chamber. So he’s blaming Washington, telling constituents in English and Spanish that he’s at the mercy of a log-jammed Congress that is sharply divided between Democrats and a Republican Party splintered into mainstream lawmakers and those aligned with the tea party movement.

“There’s this fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and until that fight gets settled — because they’re the majority — there’s a lot of things that are pretty much on hold,” he said.

During a stop in the farming town of San Elizario, Gallego visited a dark, one-story community center two blocks north of the border. Locals wanted to tell him about dangerous levels of arsenic in the drinking water. And several in the crowd wanted to learn more about what Congress might do along the border.

“One hundred percent of us here don’t want to see the militarization of the border,” one woman told him in Spanish. Gallego responded that he agreed.

He told the crowd that his office is working with local officials to ensure the safety of the water. But Gabriela Castañeda interrupted him to make a broader point.

She stood and told the room that “if we get immigration reform that guides us to citizenship, then we won’t just be another number. We’ll have the same opportunities as a citizen. We won’t have these problems. We’ll have access to better water, to health care.”

Gallego beamed as the crowd erupted in applause. As he turned to leave the room, a man shouted at the congressman to promise that Congress will pass immigration reform.

“I can’t promise you that we’re going to do it,” he said. “Eso es una prometa grande,” he added in Spanish, meaning, “That’s a big promise.”

“But I can tell you that I’m going to do everything I can to do the best job to fix the problem.”

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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