WASHINGTON — Both Republicans and Democrats have used migrant surges along the U.S.-Mexico border to score political points, says R-San Antonio Rep. Tony Gonzales.
“I don’t have that luxury,” Gonzales said in an interview. “My district is at the epicenter of that. It’s burning.”
Gonzales represents Texas’ 23rd congressional district, which includes about 40 percent of the US-Mexico border and includes some of the areas most featured in news reports about migrants trying to cross the border: Eagle Pass, Del Rio, El Paso.
He has unsuccessfully attempted to attend President Joe Biden’s recent trip to the border and has expressed frustration that the administration is not working with members like him on potential bipartisan solutions.
Gonzales said his constituents blame the Biden administration for many things that went wrong on the border, but also told him they wanted Congress to fix the problem rather than play the blame game.
Gonzales has described himself as a hawk when it comes to border security.
“But you can also be warm and welcoming to those who come and want to live the American Dream through the trial,” he said.
Because of this, he’s an outspoken critic of the Border Safety and Security Act, introduced by Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, which Gonzales says has a catchy but ultimately misleading name.
Critics say Roy’s legislation would require the Department of Homeland Security to turn away asylum seekers unless it had the capacity to hold them for the duration of the process — and DHS would never have that capacity.
“This law would essentially ban all asylum claims, including legitimate asylum claims,” Gonzales said, citing an incident where young girls were abandoned in a field by the cartels last year. “When this law goes into effect, what are you going to do with these little girls? are you throwing them down the river? Will you throw her over the fence?”
Border security was a key element of Republicans’ midterm message, and the party continues to criticize the Biden administration for not doing more to stem the flow of migrants.
Texas Republicans last year unveiled a border security plan that focused on physical infrastructure and tighter enforcement. Gonzales was the only House Republican in the Texas delegation not to sign this framework.
Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, dubbed Roy the “Thomas Jefferson” behind the delegation’s frame.
The framework includes DHS’s obligation to “turn away at the border all persons who cannot be detained pending their proceedings, including the use of programs that comply with the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).”
At the press conference unveiling the frame, Roy cited the migrants who died in an overheated trailer near San Antonio last year and children trafficked by Mexican cartels.
“In what world is that kind of compassionate?” said Roy. “It’s not. It’s destroying lives. It’s destroying American lives. It’s strengthening cartels.”
Securing the border will not only involve physical barriers like a wall, but also changes in policy, he said.
“You cannot meet and let go. You must be able to hold back and/or turn away to stop the tide that is ravaging lives,” Roy said. “That’s how you actually secure a border by enforcing those policies.”
The text of his bill, co-sponsored by a dozen other Texas Republicans, says the Secretary of Homeland Security would have the ability to “prohibit the entry of undercover aliens at a United States international land or sea border” if necessary to do so “to gain operational control over such a border.”
The bill would require the minister to suspend entry if the government “cannot detain such undercover aliens”.
That’s going too far, say opponents like El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz, who chairs the US Bishops’ Conference on Migration.
Seitz recently wrote to members of Congress urging them to oppose Roy’s bill as contrary to the nation’s international obligations and its moral principles.
“If this law were to be enacted, it would deny access to protection to vulnerable persons on the run, including asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, victims of torture and victims of human trafficking fleeing life-threatening situations,” wrote Seitz, who is in the Diocese of Dallas, before moving to El Paso.
Gonzales has his own border security proposal, co-sponsored by three other Texas Republicans, that would urge calling the cartels terrorist organizations and doubling funding from $90 million to $180 million for the Operation Stone Garden grants, which are used to support the… local law enforcement agencies can coordinate federal efforts at the border.
Gonzales noted that he was the only House Republican to vote against the new rules package, largely based on objections to potential defense spending cuts. But he hinted that his opposition to Roy’s bill would go further.
“This is an area where I will not simply vote no,” Gonzales said. “I’ve been very active in educating members about what the law does and doesn’t do.”
It had been expected that Roy’s bill would come straight to the table early in this session, but it appears concerns expressed by Gonzales and other Republicans have prompted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to block him to be sent through the Homeland Security Committee instead.
Gonzales recently joined this body, so he will be able to propose changes when they come up for review.
He said he has no interest in being a “lone wolf,” and he’s working to gather like-minded fellow GOPs interested in real solutions.
“We can’t just broadcast messages for two years,” Gonzales said. “The American public didn’t take the majority of House Republicans for mere embassies. We expect real results, be it on inflation or border security. We have to deliver.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, recently led a bipartisan group of senators on a tour of the border, including some of the same senators who came together last year to write a landmark gun safety bill.
During a speech Monday, Cornyn said that senators need to talk but be realistic about what can find enough support in the Senate.
In an interview, Cornyn said he had spoken to Gonzales and planned to meet up with Roy later this week.
“What I said to both Tony and Chip is – you guys make a border law and please send it over here,” Cornyn said. “This is our only chance to have a vehicle that…we can actually do something with.”