Tony Gonzales steps up to the plate on immigration and border security

Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas)
Greg Nash
Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) arrives for a closed-door House Republican conference meeting on Tuesday, January 10, 2023.

Editor’s note: GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales (Texas) defeated Democrat John Lira in the 2022 election. The information was incorrect in an earlier version of the story.

Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) represents more than a third of the U.S.-Mexico border, and he wants everyone to know that immigration policy and border security are two separate issues.

“Republicans and Democrats fall into this trap where they mix the two. Border security and immigration are absolutely two separate issues. Now, they’re related. They’re closely related, but they are two separate issues. And you only know that if you live it,” Gonzales told The Hill.

Gonzales’s perspective is the opposite of what many in the Republican Party are pushing, but it’s a common one among both liberals and conservatives in the more populated areas of the border.

“I am talking to folks who live on the border every single day. And they’ll tell you — and it could be people with the most conservative philosophies you can imagine — that go, ‘Tony, I want to keep every terrorist out,'” Gonzales said.

“And they’ll say, ‘You know, this wouldn’t be so bad if people came here and they could work and help my small business out.'”

For decades, Congress has often tried and always failed to legislate on border security and immigration as a package.

The last major bill to combine the two, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, was one-sided: It added restrictive provisions to immigration law, while transforming the border from a largely unguarded expanse into the fortified tract it is today.

But only a few targeted bills have addressed the immigration system itself.

If Democrats and Republicans throughout the political spectrum agree on anything about the immigration system, it’s that it’s broken.

Gonzales, a former Navy master chief who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he intends to fix it.

“I fought in two wars. This is my third war. I fought in two wars, and sometimes that’s bucking your own party. Sometimes it’s bucking the other party. But at the end of the day, I will fight for what I believe in and border security is extremely important. Reforming our immigration system and fixing it to where innocent people aren’t being exploited, equally as important,” said Gonzales.

Though Gonzales isn’t going at it alone, his options are limited in a divided Congress.

To kick off his second term, Gonzales was named co-chair of the Congressional Hispanic Conference, the grouping of GOP House Hispanics.

His co-chair is Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a longtime champion of immigration reform and one of the co-founders of the group.

Earlier this month, the co-chairs warned that with the razor-thin GOP majority in the House, any group of Republicans can shift the political tide on an issue.

“It’s important to note that this is a group to be reckoned with. As Tony said, you know, right now five members are the most important people in the entire House,” Diaz-Balart said.

“Just know that this is a diverse group and we are in a number of different committees, important committees, so we are going to have a say in every important issue that the House deals with in this Congress,” added Diaz-Balart, one of the powerful House Appropriations Committee “cardinals,” or subcommittee chairs.

In only their second month at the helm, House Republicans have already held two major hearings on immigration, showcasing a deep partisan divide on how to handle border security and immigration issues.

Democrats largely want to handle legal immigration, asylum, border security and the fentanyl epidemic as separate issues with distinct policy prescriptions; most Republicans say an immigration crackdown will improve all the issues.

But Gonzales says piling immigration and border security into one bucket is a mistake.

“Anyone that muddies the two, I immediately question their understanding of the issue,” he said.

That understanding, he said, comes naturally to people who live binational lives along the border.

“​​It is part of the identity of your district, and I think it’s important that we listen to these folks, that we listen to these people, and actually you can have solutions for both, but there are different solutions,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales and fellow Texas GOP Rep. Chip Roy have sparred in the media over a bill proposed by Roy that Gonzales and other opponents say would ban asylum.

Roy has said his bill is not an “asylum ban” and is threatening to tie it to negotiations on the debt ceiling.

Still, Roy’s bill includes language that would implement historical restrictions on the executive’s ability to grant asylum.

“An all-out ban on all asylum claims to include legitimate asylum claims, that’s un-American,” Gonzales said.

But with decades of legislative inaction, the asylum system has been stretched far beyond its original intent — one of the reasons left and right agree the system is “broken.”

Gonzales said one safety valve — albeit one that would require congressional action — is work visas.

“This is something that should be low-hanging fruit,” he said.

And Gonzales is bullish about the possibility of productive legislation in a Congress that many discounted from the get-go.

“As a master chief, my job was always to find a solution. You’re given these tools: Get to yes, I don’t care how you do it, over, under, through. And so I’m not waiting for someone to tell me to do something,” Gonzales said.

“And it’s time for rank-and-file members to lead, and oftentimes that’s the most effective from the ground up instead of a top down approach, waiting for some leader to come down and give you great guidance, you’ll be waiting forever. It has to be from a bottom up approach. And I think there’s opportunities for that.”

In his first term, Gonzales voted with his party leadership against two immigration measures that passed with bipartisan support, drawing harsh criticism from immigration advocates.

Those measures, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and the Dream and Promise Act, would both have gone beyond work visas into the realm of granting a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

Like many members first elected in 2020, Gonzales began his congressional career with the left foot.

One of his first tasks after winning a close election in a once-purple district was to defend the House of Representatives chamber doors from a potential breach by rioters on Jan. 6, 2021.

Gonzales easily won in 2022 — the fifth straight GOP win in a district he helped turn reliably red — besting Democrat John Lira after a close race in 2020 against two-time Democratic nominee Gina Ortiz-Jones.

In his second term, Gonzales is openly challenging some of his own party’s talking points on immigration and the border.

“When I look in the eyes of many of these migrants, I don’t see someone that goes, ‘Man, I can’t wait to vote for Joe Biden.’ Right? I don’t see that. I see someone that goes, ‘I can’t wait to provide a new life for my family.’ That’s what I see. And so to me, that’s powerful,” Gonzales said.

—Updated Friday at 11:20 a.m.

Tags border security immigration policy immigration reform Mario Diaz-Balart Mario Díaz-Balart Tony Gonzales Tony Gonzales

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video