Dem quits Hispanic Caucus to protest Senate immigration bill border measures

A Texas lawmaker has quit the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to protest the group's tacit endorsement of a Senate-passed immigration proposal.

Rep. Filemon Vela, a freshman Democrat representing the southernmost tip of Texas, left the caucus over what he considers the Senate bill's severe approach to border security, his office confirmed Tuesday.

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The Senate bill, which passed last week in a 68-32 vote, included a Republican border-security amendment designed to attract conservative support for the overall package.

Sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and John Hoeven (N.D.), the $38 billion amendment would double the number of Border Patrol agents and add more than 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico frontier. The proposal passed easily, 69-29, with 15 Republicans backing the amendment.

In a speech on the House floor last week, Vela condemned the notion of bolstering the border fence, arguing that it would split communities, threaten wildlife, cost billions of dollars that would be better spent elsewhere and hinder trade with Mexico. He invoked former President Reagan's visit to the Berlin Wall and wondered why Congress is intent on building border fences instead of tearing them down.

"Erecting more border fence would chill the robust economic relationship that our country and our states enjoy with that country," Vela said. "Rather than constructing new hurdles to trade with Mexico, we should be tearing down trade barriers in order to promote and strengthen our relationship with our neighbor country."

As a group, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has not officially endorsed the Senate package, but Chairman Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) cheered its passage as an important step to getting an elusive agreement on comprehensive immigration reform to the president's desk.

"The Senate showed us that it is possible for Democrats and Republicans to come together to solve one of our nation's most pressing issues," Hinojosa said last week in a statement.

Individually, many members of the caucus have praised the Senate's bipartisan compromise as a model for what the House should aim for. But with Republicans controlling the House — and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) vowing not to consider the Senate bill — the lower chamber is expected to produce an immigration package that's more conservative than the Senate bill, leaving ultimate passage uncertain.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a member of the Hispanic Caucus, warned last week that there is a growing number of House Democrats who won't support a comprehensive reform bill that includes the Corker-Hoeven border security measures.

A House Democratic aide predicted Vela's departure from the causus would put more pressure on GOP leaders to push an immigration proposal similar to the Senate bill.

"It emphasizes that the Senate bill is really a compromise," the aide said.

Caucus spokesman Kristian Ramos declined to comment Tuesday.