On Tuesday, Texas Congressman Filemon Vela (D) resigned from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus because members of the group support the comprehensive immigration reform bill with the border surge. Vela represents Texas’ 34th congressional district, which includes Brownsville, a city positioned directly across the border from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The border surge is a compromise adopted in the Senate designed to appeal to more conservative members of the House of Representatives; it includes 20,000 new border agents, observation towers, cameras, drones, helicopters, and 700 miles of new border fencing. Vela’s resignation came after he made a speech on the House floor criticizing the border surge.
The planned border surge has been criticized by human rights advocates. As the number of border agents has increased in recent years, the deaths of migrants crossing has also increased. There have also been incidents of border agents shooting Mexican citizens.
In a statement released on Wednesday, Vela explained that he could not support an immigration bill that promoted fear between neighbors and harmed the environment. He did affirm that he was committed to immigration reform, just not at the expense of border communities.
Vela said, “I grew up on the border, and until recently, border towns in Mexico and the United States shared a common economic and cultural vitality. Now we have border fences, and they don’t work. They harm the environment, inconvenience everyone and promote fear between neighbors. The Senate bill perpetuates an environment of fear and separation, and as one of our greatest Presidents said, that is the only thing we have to fear. I will not compromise my commitment to my border constituents for reasons of expedience. Thus, on this issue, I could not remain silent as members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus endorsed the Senate-passed bill. For that reason, I tendered my resignation.”
The first term Congressman also expressed frustration that his colleagues who were not from the border region were making decisions with real impacts on those who live along the U.S. – Mexico border. Vela added, “Opponents of serious immigration reform are extracting a pound of flesh in this process by conditioning a pathway to citizenship on the construction of more ineffective border fence. For some legislators it is easy to give up the pound of flesh when it’s not their flesh. In this case the communities paying the price are those in the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and El Paso, and those along the borders of New Mexico, Arizona and California.”
In response to Vela’s announcement, Presente.org, an online Latino issue organization, sent out an electronic “thank you card” that its members can sign thanking the Texas congressman for his bold action. Vela’s resignation could be a turning point for Latinos in the current immigration debate. As people become more aware of what the border surge entails, they may be reluctant to go along with what policy makers are advocating for in passing of the Senate immigration bill. A Latino Decisions poll from early June shows that Latino voters oppose the “border security first” approach to immigration reform and are not in favor of more Immigration and Customs Enforcement crackdowns.