NOGALES — There’s a big disconnect between the needs of border communities and what’s dictated by national policies in Washington, and members of Congress representing the border lands say they want to change that.
Members of the Border Caucus, including U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Tucson, are working to introduce comprehensive immigration legislation when they return from the August recess, they said in Nogales on Friday during an ad hoc hearing about immigration.
Reps. Beto O’Rourke and Filemon Vela, both from Texas, and Grijalva are holding a series of hearings to redefine the meaning of border security. The last hearing will be held Monday in El Paso.
The three Democrats said they will base their bill largely on a previous piece of legislation, introduced in 2009 with more than 100 co-sponsors, that included a path to legal status and touched on issues of border security and family unity, and provided channels for people to migrate legally.
“We are going to discuss a placeholder that can be our vehicle for discussion,” said Grijalva, saying it would change the definition of border security to reflect humanitarian, environmental and economic issues.
The likelihood of seeing a House bill from a bipartisan group of lawmakers similar to the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” is “slim to none,” he said.
Not only does Congress have to deal with issues including Syria and the budget, but House leaders have also said they will not consider the bill passed by the Senate in June. Instead, they will take a piecemeal approach to the issue that will likely not include a path to legal status to the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.
So far, they’ve drafted a handful of bills dealing with security, employment verification and agricultural workers, but they haven’t gotten to the full floor, and the border Democrats said Friday they don’t think they would garner a lot of support.
There’s also the possibility of bypassing House Speaker John Boehner to bring the Senate bill for a vote. But the three said they couldn’t support the border surge provision that includes more than $46 billion to enhance security, including almost doubling the number of Border Patrol agents and spending billions on technology.
“The Senate bill is very well-intentioned, it includes a pathway to citizenship, deals with family reunification, addresses many of the issues we’ve been waiting for 30 years,” said O’Rourke.
“However, the part that affects the border where more than 6 million of our fellow U.S. citizens live is inhumane, it is irrational and it’s fiscally irresponsible,” he said.
“I don’t know if we need a wholesale alternative, but we definitely want to shape S 744 (the Senate immigration bill).”
Grijalva said he remains optimistic that immigration reform will pass.
“We continue to be encouraged by the fact the public in general wants something done, something common-sense, something humane,” he said before the hearing.
A panel of experts gave testimony about everything from the environment to the more than 2,000 border deaths, alleged abuses by the Border Patrol and the importance of trade and travel.
The lack of understanding of the border was a recurring theme.
“People are not familiar with how we see our daily life, how we speak two languages, live in two countries,” said Jesus Espinosa, who lives in Nogales, Sonora, but crosses the border every day with a student visa to go to Lourdes Catholic School in Nogales, Ariz.
“People think Mexico is a place full of violence and vandalism, but it’s not like that,” he said after the hearing. “We’re one community. There’s no border.”
Border trade is also missing from the debate, the congressmen and experts said, and it’s something that has nationwide impact.
“The infrastructure capacity has not kept pace with bilateral trade and population growth,” said Christopher Wilson, who is with the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and co-authored a report about the state of the border, which said:.
More than 11 million people cross to the United States through the ports of entry in Nogales.
Arizona exports more than $5 billion worth of products to Mexico.
The Mariposa port of Entry in Nogales is undergoing a $220 million reconfiguration project that will double its capacity, but staffing might be an issue.
“Unless significant steps are taken by Congress to address the staffing shortfalls of officers, we will be running a flagship port of entry with less than half of the lanes opened,” said Allison Moore, who is with the Fresh Produce Association.
The bottom line, said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, who has been in law enforcement for 45 years, is that the border can’t be completely sealed.
“As long as there are those in the United States who purchase drugs and as long as the economy in Mexico is below the U.S., even with our economic challenges, there will be those who will do whatever it takes to cross,” he said. “Immigration reform is a must.”
He also called the addition of 20,000 Border Patrol agents an overreaction. “What needs to be done is to properly fund the agents you have now.”
Even if there’s a tough road ahead for immigration reform, O’Rourke said the three congressmen now have a lot more information to pass on to their colleagues.
“I don’t know if we can prevail upon the conscience of Congress,” he said. “What we can do is talk about the economic self-interest of those districts. Perhaps that’s the more effective route to get there.”