Border lawmakers press Trump to beef up existing security

President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally 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 VelaHispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden builds big lead in battleground Florida Texas Democrat proposes COVID-19 victims' compensation fund 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 HurdHillicon Valley: Oracle confirms deal with TikTok to be 'trusted technology provider' | QAnon spreads across globe, shadowing COVID-19 | VA hit by data breach impacting 46,000 veterans House approves bill to secure internet-connected federal devices against cyber threats House Democrats' campaign arm reserves .6M in ads in competitive districts 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 LeahyBattle over timing complicates Democratic shutdown strategy Hillicon Valley: Russia 'amplifying' concerns around mail-in voting to undermine election | Facebook and Twitter take steps to limit Trump remarks on voting | Facebook to block political ads ahead of election Top Democrats press Trump to sanction Russian individuals over 2020 election interference efforts 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 EscobarHispanic caucus report takes stock of accomplishments with eye toward 2021 Races heat up for House leadership posts Ahead of a coronavirus vaccine, Mexico's drug pricing to have far-reaching impacts on Americans MORE (D-Texas), who took over former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeJimmy Carter says his son smoked pot with Willie Nelson on White House roof O'Rourke endorses Kennedy for Senate: 'A champion for the values we're most proud of' 2020 Democrats do convention Zoom call 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."