SAN JUAN, RGV – A colonia group leader has praised Congressman Filemon Vela for his strong stand against “border surge” legislation.

“I so applaud Congressman Vela’s bold move,” said Ann Cass, executive director of Proyecto Azteca. “We do not need any more militarization of the border. The Republican plan would have more boots on the ground than we have in South Korea and we are not at war with Mexico!”

Proyecto Azteca builds houses for colonia residents. It is a member of the RGV Equal Voice Network, a coalition of ten colonia groups.

“If we cannot find money in Congress for rural housing, health care, education, why are we going to spend all this money militarizing the border?” Cass asked. “The last border wall in the Rio Grande Valley averaged $12.5 million per mile. I would love to have one mile of that spending for housing in the colonias, one mile of that spending for indigent health care, one mile of that spending for community centers, education, more parks, etc. For a border wall? It is immoral. We thank the Congressman for using common sense and saying ‘No!’”

Congressman Filemon Vela spoke recently to La Unión del Pueblo Entero members in San Juan. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
Congressman Filemon Vela spoke recently to La Unión del Pueblo Entero members in San Juan. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

Congressman Vela, a Democrat from Brownsville, announced Tuesday he was quitting the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in protest at new provisions in the Senate immigration reform legislation. The bill is known as S.744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.

An amendment to S.744 authored by Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, and John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, requires an additional 20,000 Border Patrol agents to be hired to man the southern border with Mexico. The amendment also calls for the completion of 700 miles of border fencing, as well as the use of more cameras, sensors, watchtowers and drones. Because of its focus on border security, the amendment has been dubbed the “border surge” amendment. The Senate bill was passed by a big majority and has been sent over to the U.S. House.

“Instead of spending $8 billion on border fence we should be tearing it down, or $30 billion on more agents when we are not even giving the current force the gasoline that they need to do the job,” Vela said Tuesday.

“I just have a real fundamental problem with it. To me, we should be tearing the border wall down that we got, not building more. I just think it is important to take a stand on it.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has not taken an official position on the Senate immigration reform bill. However, its chair, Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, is a strong supporter.

“The United States Senate passed landmark legislation designed to create a path for citizenship for millions of undocumented residents who will contribute to this great country the way so many immigrants in the past have done,” said Hinojosa, after S.744 passed the Senate.

“The Senate showed us that it is possible for Democrats and Republicans to come together to solve one of our nation’s most pressing issues. I applaud the ‘Gang of Eight’ for ensuring the bill they passed provides all immigrants the opportunity to earn citizenship. Now, it is time for my colleagues in the House of Representatives to follow suit and develop a sensible, comprehensive bill that is reflective of our American values.”

The Senate bill has also won support from Congressmen Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, and Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio. “The bill is a bipartisan bill – it accounts for the political reality in Washington, D.C.,” Castro told reporters in San Antonio on Tuesday. “Many of the provisions are not provisions Democrats are in love with … but I think it was the best compromise the Senate could come up with.”

Taking a different stance to Hinojosa, Gallego and Castro are border Congressmen Vela, Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso. They issued a joint statement on the Corker-Hoeven amendment which read: “In 1987 Ronald Reagan famously challenged Russia by declaring: ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ We object to the Corker-Hoeven Amendment. This amendment will condition a pathway to citizenship on the construction of additional border fencing. As congressmen actually representing communities along the US-Mexico border, and having grown up there ourselves, we believe this amendment is an outrageous assault on border culture; and is an ineffective and misguided attempt to solve this country’s immigration issues. For these reasons, we want to be clear: We will oppose any attempt to condition a pathway to citizenship on the construction of additional fencing along the US-Mexico border.”

Vela decried the loss of the cross-border culture he grew up in during a meeting with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in March. “I wanted to make sure Secretary Napolitano understood that here along our South Texas border, our cross-border culture has been destroyed because of the violence in Mexico,” Vela said, in an interview with the Guardian.

Vela said the reason he brought this subject up is because those who live along the border and those who represent the South Texas border region need to let people in Washington know that “the border we now live in is not the same border we lived in just ten years ago.”

Vela repeated what many living along the border knows first-hand. “In a relatively short period of time we have gone from a cross-border culture to one where our neighbors and family members who live in Mexico are no longer safe.” Vela said many Mexican nationals have moved to South Texas to avoid the violence. “And, those of us here who enjoyed going across the border no longer can enjoy it like we used to. I think that is a message that Washington needs to hear loud and clear. I think that is something Secretary Napolitano understood, when I met with her,” Vela said.