A Texas Democrat Tries to Fix the Border

Rep. Henry Cuellar is battling Republicans and Democrats alike to end the humanitarian crisis on America’s southern border. But does a guy picking fights with everyone from President Obama to Ted Cruz stand a chance?

08.19.14 9:45 AM ET

Before Gaza exploded, and the Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine, and ISIS stormed across Iraq, and Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in protest, Americans were finally paying attention to something that they usually ignore: the U.S.-Mexico border. 

What got the nation’s attention was the fact that—since October 2013—at least 60,000 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Thousands more are stuck in Mexico, awaiting their chance to cross and expected to arrive before the end of the year.

And in the thick of it all is one Texas Democratic congressman, Henry Cuellar, who bucked both parties in an attempt to end the crisis.

Many congressional lawmakers have offered competing pieces of legislation, only to have the inherent dishonesty of the immigration debate derail any potential solution. On talk radio, every conservative who had ever had dinner in a Mexican restaurant fashioned himself an expert on the border. People who normally sound smart said some awfully dumb things.

Even for those who have visited, it’s easy to get the border wrong. It’s the equivalent of a foreign country. There are two economies, above ground and underground, and the boundaries at times seem fluid.   

It’s this area of the country, which would probably seem exotic and even dangerous to most Americans, where Cuellar calls home. The Democrat and five-term Texas congressman was born in the border city of Laredo, which is part of the 28th Congressional District that he represents. It’s in his district where most of the unaccompanied minors who are crossing into Texas first set foot. 

Cuellar has sometimes referred to himself as “the most degreed member of Congress,” and it’s easy to see why. After attending public school in Laredo, Cuellar attended Georgetown University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in foreign service. Later, he obtained a master’s degree in international trade from Texas A&M International University in Laredo and a law degree and Ph.D in government from the University of Texas at Austin.

But in speaking to Cuellar, it’s clear that—for all that book learning—what’s really valuable about his worldview is that much of it was shaped while living on the border. For him, this is not a temporary story that gets pushed off the front page only to be brought back again when some other bad thing happens in the no man’s land that separates the United States and Mexico. 

And, my sources on the border say, there are plenty of bad things happening there now. There is violence—robbery and assaults and general mayhem, all things you would expect when thousands of Border Patrol agents are preoccupied with day-care duties supervising the lost children of Central America.

By all accounts, the number of unaccompanied minors coming across the border is fewer now than it was several weeks ago—perhaps down by as much as two-thirds. But there are still 100 of these kids crossing the border every day, down from 300 in June. That’s 3,000 kids a month that the federal government doesn’t have a clue what to do with, but Cuellar does.

“I’ve always said that the best way to deal with this was to send a message, and send these people back home,” he told me. “We need to detain and return. If you return them, they’re going to say: ‘It’s not worth it.’ And they’ll stop coming.”

Last month, the Democrat co-sponsored a bill with Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican. Their bill, while not doing anything to aid the children already here, would have at least tried to turn off the flow of kids making the dangerous trek across the border. The legislation would have modified the law that Cuellar and Cornyn think is the root of the problem: the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which requires that unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada not be immediately deported but placed with family members in the U.S. while awaiting a court date. The bill aimed to eliminate the distinction between unaccompanied minors and, in essence, eliminate the special treatment now given to children from non-contiguous countries.

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By targeting the 2008 law, Cuellar and Cornyn set up a confrontation with another Texas lawmaker, Sen. Ted Cruz. Cruz, along with conservatives in the media like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, was feverishly advancing a conflicting narrative that blamed the entire border crisis on the Obama administration’s policy of offering temporary deferred action to young undocumented immigrants. That confrontation all but ensured that their bill would have trouble getting enough Republican votes in either chamber. Whether what Cuellar and Cornyn proposed was a good idea didn’t really matter. What mattered was that—to many Republicans—it wasn’t good politics to say the fiasco was anything but Obama’s fault.

Cuellar and Cornyn wanted to expedite the deportation of the kids from Central America. This is exactly the same goal that the White House had in mind at the start of the crisis, but then quickly distanced itself from amid an outcry from pro-immigration activists.

“The president threatened to veto his own concept,” Cuellar said. “That vacillation was not good for the process.”

And, even after the president appeared to retreat and tell immigration advocates that he would not pursue a change in the 2008 law, expedited removal is exactly the policy being carried out by the Department of Homeland Security and Secretary Jeh Johnson. 

President Obama and Cuellar again butted heads when Obama refused to visit the U.S.-Mexico border during a fundraising swing through Texas, and Cuellar called him out on it. The congressman warned publicly that this could be Obama’s “Katrina moment.”

“A White House official told my chief of staff that they would appreciate it if I didn’t use that phrase,” he said. “I agreed. But I also said I’d keep speaking out about the crisis when I was asked.”

When asked why he wouldn’t visit the border, Obama said: “This isn’t theater. I’m not interested in photo ops.”  

Cuellar didn’t buy it. 

“The president needed to see the kids,” he said. “A photo op is when they show him playing pool and drinking beer.” 

In the end, because the parties put politics before policy when it comes to immigration issues, the Cornyn-Cuellar bill died. 

“Everyone is going in different directions,” he said. “There were all these currents and undercurrents, all these competing agendas. I’ve never seen anything like it. The message got so muddled, the original bill just got put to the side.”

The lawmakers might reintroduce the legislation, or something like it, when Congress reconvenes next month. Or maybe not.  Either way, some may chalk this up as a defeat for Cuellar, but that’s a hard case to make.

At a critical moment that affected his district more than any other, the South Texas lawmaker—unlike other Latino members of Congress—stuck his neck out, told the truth, confronted the leader of his own party, and offered a solution. And that’s no defeat.