Sunday, August 23, 2009

Will Ciro Rodriguez Stop a New Round of Border Walls?

By Scott Nicol

U.S. Representative Ciro Rodriguez, whose district stretches from San Antonio to the border communities of Eagle Pass, Del Rio, and Presidio, will play a key role in determining whether or not more border walls are built in Texas. After Congress returns from its August recess, Rodriguez will serve on the Conference Committee responsible for reconciling the House and Senate versions of the Department of Homeland Security’s 2010 Appropriations Bill. The Senate’s version contains an amendment requiring the construction of up to 369 miles of new border walls, while the House version makes no mention of walls.

Ignoring the destructive impacts on municipalities, private property, and wildlife refuges that Texas has already suffered, Senators Hutchison and Cornyn both voted for more border walls.

Based on his record, there is hope that, in contrast to Texas’ Senators, Representative Rodriguez will stand up for his constituents and work to strip the border wall amendment from the bill. But a recent action also gives reason for concern.

Standing up for Texas border communities would certainly be welcomed by those in Representative Rodriguez’ district who live along the Rio Grande. Eagle Pass was the first such municipality that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sued to condemn land for the border wall.

Representative Rodriguez has made efforts to lessen the border wall’s impact and give the Secretary of Homeland Security the latitude to spare Eagle Pass and other border communities. He inserted an amendment into the 2008 supplemental appropriations bill which changed the Secure Fence Act to read,

“nothing in this paragraph shall require the Secretary of Homeland Security to install fencing, physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors in a particular location along an international border of the United States, if the Secretary determines that the use or placement of such resources is not the most appropriate means to achieve and maintain operational control over the international border at such location.''

Since the Congressional Research Service had already determined that border walls have “no discernible impact” on the number of undocumented immigrants and smugglers who cross the border each year, it should have been easy for then-Secretary Chertoff to decide that walls were not the most appropriate means to control the border. Unfortunately, neither he nor current DHS Secretary Napolitano has been willing to take the political heat and halt the construction of more “expensive and useless” walls.

Rep. Rodriguez also joined the rest of Texas’ border representatives in asking President Obama to “suspend construction of border fencing” until a cost-benefit analysis could be conducted and consultation with local stakeholders could be initiated. He also signed on to a letter calling on DHS to monitor the damage caused by the wall and establish a mitigation fund.

So clearly, Rodriguez can be counted on to remove the border wall building amendment from the DHS appropriations bill, right?

Maybe not. In July, Rep. Rodriguez co-sponsored the Secure America with Verification and Enforcement (SAVE) Act. One provision of the SAVE Act states,

“[T]he Secretary shall construct or purchase […] additional fencing (and aesthetic fencing in business districts) in urban areas of the border; and vehicle barriers, to support, not replace, manpower, in rural and remote areas of the border necessary to achieve operational control of the international borders of the United States.”

So despite his prior record of opposing the border wall, Representative Rodriguez is now co-sponsoring a bill that calls for more wall construction, which may cut through the communities he serves.

This earned Representative Rodriguez and the rest of the SAVE Act’s co-sponsors a congratulatory letter from Roy Beck, president of the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA, who said, “It is with highest enthusiasm and expectation that NumbersUSA endorses your re-introduction of the SAVE Act.”

NumbersUSA has been denounced by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its ties to nativist and racist organizations. Roy Beck himself was a longtime editor of the white nationalist publication The Social Contract, and NumbersUSA shares a Washington, DC office with the anti-immigrant group ProEnglish. One would expect that their enthusiastic endorsement would be as welcome as that of the Ku Klux Klan.

Representative Rodriguez’s support for the SAVE Act muddies his record as an advocate for the border communities in his district and begs the question: what will he do in Conference Committee? Will he work to strip border walls from the DHS bill, or allow them to tear through his constituents’ communities? Will he side with Chad Foster, or Roy Beck?

It is possible that Representative Rodriguez’ support for the walls in the SAVE Act is a response to the right wing’s howls that he and Senator Hutchison “gutted” the Secure Fence Act when they gave DHS the flexibility to decide whether or not to wall off a given refuge, community, or family farm. Senator Hutchison has been unable to stand up to the right’s criticism, and has given the border wall unwavering support ever since.

Ultimately, Representative Rodriguez was not elected to serve Roy Beck. Ciro Rodriguez is in Washington DC to represent the interests of Eagle Pass, Del Rio, Presidio, and other communities that are threatened with border wall construction. If he fails to act on their behalf by removing the border wall amendment from the DHS bill, more of his constituents will see border walls tear through their communities.