Border lawmakers press Trump to beef up existing security

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls for Republicans to be 'united' on abortion Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution Facebook temporarily suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens MORE is facing pressure from lawmakers in border districts to abandon plans for a wall and focus instead on modernizing security for the nation's border crossings.

The border lawmakers say Trump should be seeking funds for technology and staffing at legal ports of entry on the Mexican border to improve security and improve crossing times.

Rep. Filemon VelaFilemon Bartolome VelaBorder Dems introduce bill to process refugee claims in Central America How Pelosi is punishing some critics while rewarding others New Dem caucus chairman: Some wall is good, but not new wall MORE (D-Texas) on Wednesday called for a $4 billion investment for those efforts in place of what he said was Trump's "misguided insistence on physical barrier funding."

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Trump said Friday he is willing to invest $400 million in improving ports of entry, but still wants $5 billion for a physical wall along the southern border.

"We're going to make ports of entry very powerful, very strong, we're going to have the best drug-finding equipment," said Trump after a White House meeting with congressional leaders.

The meeting was meant to further negotiations on ending a partial government shutdown that started Dec. 22. But both sides are deadlocked, with Democrats refusing to give Trump $5 billion for his border wall.

"I explained to them, the problem is, though, we can have a wonderful port of entry, but you have 2,000 miles of border between the United States and Mexico," Trump added.

He claimed that a substantial share of human and drug smuggling does not happen at ports of entry.

But Trump's claim contradicts official figures and local experts, who see the need for expanded legal ports of entry both from a security and an economic perspective.

"In the end, most of undocumented migration and drug trafficking does not take place in the middle of the desert, it takes place at our ports of entry," said Jon Barela, CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, a nonprofit promoting business in New Mexico and West Texas.

Barela, who previously served under former New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) as secretary of economic development, praised Vela's proposal, saying "it would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than arbitrarily building walls that are easily surmounted."

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment report, only a small portion of seized heroin, for instance, was captured outside of ports of entry.

Most heroin smuggled by land into the United States, reported the DEA, comes in personal vehicles, followed by tractor trailers, and a smaller percentage smuggled by "body carriers."

A fair share of illegal immigration is also accounted for at ports of entry. 

In fiscal 2018, 396,579 people were caught trying to cross the border illegally, but a further 124,511 were turned away at U.S.-Mexico ports of entry, according to Customs and Border Protection. 

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who represents Laredo, the busiest international commercial land crossing in the world, said the focus of border security investment should be on technology to screen trucks and trains, and boots on the ground to speed up legal crossings.

"Instead of spending those billions on fence, put it on ports of entry," said Cuellar. "If you want to stop drugs, that's how you do it."

Cuellar added that, in addition to infrastructure and technology improvements, more "men and women in green" — Border Patrol officers — and "men and women in blue" — Customs and Border Protection officers — are needed to man the border, both at ports of entry and elsewhere.

Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas), who along with Cuellar and Vela represents the Rio Grande Valley area, emphasized that the region depends on trade with Mexico.

“I agree that we need to do more to secure our nation’s border. However, I would remind the administration that there are 7,500 open positions with the U.S. Border Patrol that have not been filled, and that this should be their top priority," said Gonzalez.

"The flow of goods and services through our ports of entry is a key component of the American economy – let’s keep it that way,” he added.

Of the nine border districts, only one is represented by a Republican, Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdHere are the eight Republicans who voted with Democrats on the Equality Act House approves anti-LGBT discrimination Equality Act Iraq War vet Ortiz Jones sets up rematch against Hurd in Texas MORE (Texas), who opposes wall construction. Hurd did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Border lawmakers worry that the attention on building wall is already hurting ports of entry.

In Arizona, where the federal government has used public lands to build physical barriers along the border, investment in expanding ports of entry has essentially stopped.

Under the Obama administration, a plan was put in place to create cross-border economic corridors at some Arizona crossings and had a positive economic effect.

"Without an adequate port of entry, [a corridor] can never be efficient again and it can never really flow the way it was envisioned," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

The political fight over the wall and the current shutdown only complicate efforts to improve the border ports.

Grijalva said there's "no question" the Trump administration is mismanaging the border, slowing down legal crossings to create an immigration crisis.

"Slowing down asylum, not fully staffing customs — the men and women in blue — is all hurting and making the immigration question on the border even worse," he said. "It is a self-fulfilling policy that has been set up politically to benefit Trump."

The administration has depicted a border in crisis, with Trump calling up troops to assist border patrol agents and threatening Friday to declare a national emergency to build the wall if Congress doesn't appropriate the necessary funds.

“We can do it. I haven’t done it. I may do it. I may do it,” Trump said.

Democrats pushed back aggressively against the idea of declaring a national emergency.

"The real national emergency is the president’s senseless and costly shutdown. There is no national emergency on the southern border," said Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyOvernight Defense: Congressional leaders receive classified briefing on Iran | Trump on war: 'I hope not' | Key Republican calls threats credible | Warren plan targets corporate influence at Pentagon Key Republican 'convinced' Iran threats are credible Graham, Leahy request briefing on decision to yank personnel from Iraq MORE (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He noted that between 2008 and 2018 border apprehensions fell by 75 percent to 400,000.

Border lawmakers worry the debate over the wall is distracting from a vitally important issue.

"They're the lifeline," said Rep. Veronica EscobarVeronica EscobarOvernight Energy: Dems press Interior chief to embrace climate action | Lawmakers at odds on how to regulate chemicals in water | Warren releases climate plan for military Warren releases plan to tackle climate change threats to military Top Dem money man puts muscle behind Latino mobilization MORE (D-Texas), who took over former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeOvernight Health Care — Presented by Campaign for Accountability — Momentum builds for federal laws enshrining abortion rights | Missouri lawmakers approve bill banning abortions at 8 weeks | Warren unveils plan to protect abortion rights Overnight Energy: Dems dismiss Interior chief's work calendars as 'fake' | Buttigieg climate plan includes carbon tax | Poll finds growing number say climate is crucial 2020 issue Buttigieg climate plan includes carbon tax MORE's (D) El Paso seat, about the border ports.

"Millions of people come back and forth in order to achieve higher education, go to school, shop — shopping is very critical to our local economy — visit family," she continued.

"It is one community and the ports of entry are the connection between the two sides."