BROWNSVILLE, RGV – U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela has failed at the committee hearing level to stop ten more miles of border fencing from being built in the Rio Grande Valley.

According to Scott Nicol, co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team, the ten miles of fencing are likely to be built in Roma and Rio Grande City and they could be double-layered. He said the fencing could be constructed inside 18 months.

Vela, D-Brownsville, unsuccessfully offered an amendment to H.R. 399, authored by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul and otherwise known as the Secure Our Border First Act of 2015. The amendment would have struck down a mandate in the bill that requires the Department of Homeland Security to construct an additional 37 miles of fencing on the southwest border.

Republicans have a solid majority on the House Homeland Security Committee and the vote – 18 to 12 -on McCaul’s bill went on party lines. McCaul, R-Austin, chairs the panel. He said his bill would direct additional equipment and resources to the southern border, including unmanned aerial vehicles, new border fencing and National Guard troops. His bill is expected to be debated by the U.S. House on Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin.

“It is the toughest border security bill ever before Congress, with real penalties for the administration for not doing their job,” McCaul said of his legislation. “We need this legislation to protect the American people and sovereignty of this nation.”

Vela, who was recently named the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, disagrees strongly with McCaul. The Brownsville Democrat issued this statement when attempting to strike the border wall provision from McCaul’s bill:

“Mr. Chairman, the bill before us today includes 37 miles of new fence on our southern border. My amendment would strike the language mandating that the Department of Homeland Security construct this unnecessary border barrier.

“It makes no sense to me, knowing how historically obsolete the Chinese Wall has become and that we tore down the Berlin Wall in the latter part of the last century, to have built a wall in the 21st century which divides the countries of the United States and Mexico given the historical context of the relationship, not to mention the significant economic forces which our two countries share.

“The border fence along the Rio Grande River was erected in response to the Terrorist Acts of 9/11 despite the fact that the terrorists who perpetrated those acts entered this country through airports nowhere near the Rio Grande River. The Millennium bomber entered this country through the Canadian/Washington State border, and the Tsarnaev brothers were granted political asylum in this country and had entered this country through airports in the Northeastern Corridor.

“The reality is that some in this country are convinced that border fencing will stop the flow of illegal immigrants, human trafficking and drug smuggling. But the fact is that it will not. As I have mentioned before, the root causes of these three issues really relate to issues of economic development and cartel violence in Mexico and Central America. Until those issues are addressed, it will be very difficult to stop the flow of illegal migration, human trafficking and drug smuggling. Today’s bill does nothing to address those concerns.

“Fences don’t make our communities safer, and in some cases they make our border less safe as they drive those seeking to unlawfully enter this country to areas that are more remote. This forces Border Patrol Agents to patrol more and more distant areas further away from their support systems.

“The bottom line is that fencing won’t stop people who are intent on crossing our borders even as we are building fences that are taller and wider in an effort to secure our nation.

“We are sitting here on the ‘Homeland Security’ Committee with the same goal – protecting our nation from those who wish to do us harm. Let’s look beyond the old, failed policies of the past and focus on the source of the real threats to our nation and our security.”

Vela’s amendment was defeated on a party-line vote and the Homeland Security Committee approved HR 399 for consideration by the full House of Representatives. It is expected to be debated on Wednesday.

Vela is not the only person in Washington opposed to the provisions of HR 399. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said it “is not a serious effort at legislating border security” and that its authors know it.

“The bill is extreme to the point of being unworkable; if enacted, it would actually leave the border less secure. The bill sets mandatory and highly prescriptive standards that the Border Patrol itself regards as impossible to achieve, undermines the Department of Homeland Security’s capacity to adapt to emerging threats, and politicizes tactical decisions,” Johnson said.

“In the meantime, the bill does nothing to provide what the Department of Homeland Security really needs from Congress – appropriated funding to pay for vital homeland security initiatives. That includes both the additional resources we put on the border last year, and the additional technology, equipment and other resources we need from Congress to further secure the border. As long as the Department of Homeland Security continues to function on a continuing resolution, as it is now, we are limited in our ability to deploy these critical tools, along with other resources vital to homeland security.”

Johnson reiterated that, unfortunately, H.R. 399 is “unworkable, plain and simple.” He urged Congress to “support the homeland security professionals” at DHS by giving them the resources they need, “without provisions that would micromanage their work or restrict their flexibility in dealing with the nation’s critical homeland security efforts.”

The Sierra Club’s Nicol pointed to an interview McCaul gave to Fox News where the House Homeland Security chairman said DHS should be mandated by Congress on the use of military hardware and tactics along the entire border, whether or not DHS and Border Patrol think they will be useful.

McCaul told Fox: “We’re gonna take the discretion away from the Department [of Homeland Security] and we’re gonna mandate how they get this thing done through the deployment of assets, uh, through the deployment of military assets from Afghanistan and other places to the Southwest border and maritime as well.”

Nicol gave this statement to the Rio Grande Guardian:

“If this legislation is signed into law it will inflict severe damage upon South Texas. The double-layered walls – essentially two parallel border walls with a road and lights in between – slated for Del Rio and the Rio Grande Valley would mean a new round of land condemnations, wildlife refuges ripped apart and major flood risk in the Rio Grande floodplain. The bill also demands that ‘forward operating bases’ modeled after those used in Afghanistan be built near El Paso, Big Bend, Del Rio, Laredo, and in the Rio Grande Valley. And to do this damage it expands the waiving of environmental laws to cover lands 100 miles into the U.S. interior along both the U.S. – Mexico and U.S. – Canada borders,” Nicol said.

“The Secure Our Border First Act of 2015 shows both a disdain for border residents and an ignorance of the landscape and our communities. It is astonishing that Texas politicians – U.S. Rep. Mike McCaul and Senator John Cornyn – are pushing legislation that will do so much damage to the state that they claim to represent in Washington. Looking at the ten billion dollar wish list of military hardware that the bill includes it appears that they are actually representing military contractors, not ordinary Texans.”

La Unión del Pueblo Entero spokesman John-Michael Torres.
La Unión del Pueblo Entero spokesman John-Michael Torres.

John-Michael Torres of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a community group that works in the colonias of Hidalgo County, said his group opposes H.R. 399 because war assets and other enforcement tools authorized by Congress could be deployed within 100 miles of the southern border. He pointed out this would encompass cities like San Diego, Tucson, El Paso and Brownsville.

“This 100-mile-zone is home to 15 million people and includes destinations such as Disneyland, Big Bend National Park, and Palo Alto Battlefield, the site of the final battle of the Civil War,” Torres said. “H.R. 399 will directly impact the livelihoods of tens of millions of people living in the southern border region, will overturn 100 years of environmental protections, will construct more border walls and will continue to give unchecked power to Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, which has been plagued with systemic abuses and corruption due to the lack of accountability and oversight.”