Border lawmakers press Trump to beef up existing security

President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president 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 VelaDCCC faces mass staff shakeup: 'It's the Monday Night Massacre' DCCC exec resigns amid furor over minority representation Hispanic Democratic lawmakers hit DCCC over lack of diversity in top ranks 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 HurdThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes Democrat running for Will Hurd's seat raises over million in first 100 days of campaign Democrats keen to take on Cornyn despite formidable challenges 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 LeahyAppropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid House panel investigating decision to resume federal executions Graham moves controversial asylum bill through panel; Democrats charge he's broken the rules 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 EscobarCongressional Hispanic Caucus calls for answers on Mississippi ICE raids Consoler in Chief like Biden is the perfect antidote to a Divider in Chief like Trump Democratic senator on possibility of Trump standing up to the NRA: 'That's just such BS' MORE (D-Texas), who took over former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes Harris to appear in CNN climate town hall after backlash Castro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates 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."