Non-security border issues a tough sell in Congress, four U.S. Congress members say at El Paso luncheon
Chances are not good for getting legislation through Congress anytime soon to deal with immigration and border economic issues, four U.S. Congress members representing the El Paso-Las Cruces area said Thursday during a Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce panel discussion.
Many U.S. congressmen and senators view the border as a dangerous place and many in Congress are focused on increasing border security, not reducing border crossing times, revising immigration laws or increasing the number of work visas for high-skilled people from other parts of the world, the panel members agreed.
Changing those views is needed to get Congress to look at a number of border issues, the panel members told about 400 people at the chamber's State of Congress luncheon at the Wyndham El Paso Airport Hotel.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, one of three Republicans on the luncheon panel, urged U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, and others in Congress to pass a border security bill — the $10 billion Secure Our Borders First Act — now pending in a congressional committee, as a first step in getting the legislative wheels turning.
Cornyn said that if the House bill gets to the Senate, he and other senators could modify it to include some nonsecurity items, such as improving international bridges and increasing staffing on bridges.
Cornyn said he believes the 60 votes needed in the Senate to modify the House bill could be found among Republicans and Democrats.
"In other words, I think we need to let the legislative process work to build consensus and to get things done. I think one thing that people hate about Washington, D.C., me included, is the dysfunction," Cornyn said.
O'Rourke said during the discussion that the bill would "further militarize the U.S.-Mexico border." After the discussion, he said he couldn't vote for the bill unless changes were made because it would hurt the El Paso area.
He said he couldn't go along with Cornyn's suggestion of passing the bill and letting the Senate modify it.
"There is no guarantee they would do anything differently," O'Rourke said.
The two other members of the panel, both Republicans, were newly elected U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, who represents a congressional district stretching from San Antonio to a small slice of East El Paso County, and U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, who represents a Southern New Mexico district stretching from the Texas border to Socorro.
Hurd and Pearce also support the border security bill, which would increase federal funding by $1 billion to $10 billion over 10 years to increase law enforcement staffing on both international borders of the United States and for other items.
Pearce said after the discussion that the bill would not hurt this area.
"The country wants to know the border is secure, and the general feeling is this (border) is pretty porous," he said.
Hurd said increasing the number of temporary work visas (H-1B visas) for people with needed high-tech skills and other border-related issues will be hard to tackle in Congress without first dealing with border security and enforcement issues.
The congressionally mandated H-1B visas cap of 85,000 for fiscal year 2016 was met in the first week of April because applications far exceeded the number of visas — something that's happened before. All the panel members supported increasing the number of visas.
The panel members also agreed that the border is misunderstood by many in Congress, and changing that view requires bringing senators and congressmen to the border for tours.
Hurd said he brought two Republican freshman congressmen to the El Paso area last week and, he said, that's already toned down their previous rhetoric about the border.
O'Rourke said the rhetoric about the border being a dangerous and economically unimportant area has to change.
"We've got to convince our colleagues. And God Bless Will and Steve and John and everyone who brings a member of Congress down here. Because once they see it with their own eyes ... they realize that the border is not the place they thought it was. In fact, it's much more a positive picture," O'Rourke said.
"So, we'll keep introducing bills, we'll keep giving people avenues to take if they want to do the right thing, the logical thing, the rational thing. We'll also continue the conversation."
The panel members also agreed that Congress is not in the mood to cut military funding, and they expect to see an increase from some cuts mandated by Congress a few years ago.
O'Rourke said plans to reduce the size of the Army in coming years still puts Fort Bliss at risk of reductions in future years unless those plans are changed.