Former Republican U.S. Representative Will Hurd
Will Hurd, who represented San Antonio's 23rd Congressional District until 2021, walks in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in 2019. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The federal government is still shut down a month after Congress hit an impasse in negotiations with President Donald Trump over border security, and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Helotes) is one of the few Republicans, so far, who has broken with the GOP and voted for the government to be reopened.

Hurd also has garnered the national spotlight for vehemently opposing constructing a physical barrier across most of the U.S.-Mexico border – a distinction that stands out even more given he’s the only Republican member of the House of Representatives who represents the border.

After marching Monday in San Antonio’s annual MLK March, Hurd spoke with the Rivard Report about the ongoing shutdown, his proposal for securing the border, Trump’s job performance, and his recent appointment to the House Appropriations Committee.

Rivard Report: Going into its 32nd day, with seemingly no end in sight, what would you say to your constituents about when the government shutdown could be resolved?

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd: I wish I did know. This weekend the president attempted his counteroffer in order to move the conversation along, and I think it’s the responsibility now from our friends on the Democratic side of the aisle to put forward a counterproposal. This notion there should be preconditions before any kind of conversation doesn’t make sense to me. It’s also reflective of the lack of trust there is between all the folks that are ultimately negotiating.

Everybody’s worried about Friday. I think Friday is the next pay period. For people to have missed two paychecks is scary, and the end of the month or the beginning of the month is when most people’s car notes are due, most people’s house notes are due. You’re going to have people really dealing with crises within their own households because of them having to work without getting paid.

RR: You’ve received a lot of national press recently for your position on the wall and the government shutdown. How do you feel your message resonated with those audiences?

WH: I’ve been saying the same thing since 2009 when I first ran for Congress. I think it was important that the president went on national TV and said he doesn’t want to build a wall from sea to sea. That’s pretty significant. The conversation’s going to come down to where are physical barriers and where should we be using other tools like technology.

I spent a lot of time on the border. I spent a good part of my adult life chasing bad guys all around the world. National security is important. Border security is important. And –guess what? – this is not a new problem. This is a problem that has existed over multiple administrations, and nobody had the political will to secure our border to get operational control of our border and streamline immigration. I think these two things go hand in hand.

Ultimately, the planks of what a final deal are going to be, I think the president did outline those. Those are the things I’ve been talking about – strong border security; heavy use of technology, especially at our ports of entry; streamlining [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]; streamlining [Temporary Protected Status]; and also addressing the root causes in the Northern Triangle [Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador]. Now the details on how you achieve each one of those planks are important, and that’s where this negotiation process should go forward.

There’s a lot of conversations going on. I’m having lots of conversations with my colleagues in the House and Senate to see if some of us can try and put something together to actually keep America safe but not do it on the backs of these men and women that are actually already keeping us safe.

RR: You’ve talked about how border security has eluded multiple administrations. Immigration reform also has gone unaddressed for many decades, and now DACA recipients are being used as bargaining chips in this ongoing shutdown. It seems like an impossibly tall order to confront all of our country’s immigration concerns.

WH: I don’t think we can address all of our immigration concerns. But I think we can address DACA and TPS [Temporary Protected Status]. It has eluded people. The DREAM Act has been out for 17 years and the DREAM Act couldn’t get passed when President Obama had simple majorities in the House, Senate, and White House. If there’s an opportunity to bring a permanent legislative solution to 1.2-plus million kids that have only known the United States of America as their own, I think we should take it.

TPS is another one. Most people aren’t as familiar with TPS as they are with DACA but it’s Temporary Protective Status. These are people [from] Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti – people that came here legally, are here legally, and the program was only supposed to be temporary. However, these are people that are paying taxes, owning homes, contributing to our economy and society. …

At 2.9 percent unemployment, we need workers – I don’t care what the industry is. Let’s streamline immigration and get people here legally, not illegally. We can solve this problem. And also, let’s prevent this $67 billion worth of drugs coming into this country. That’s a problem.

If anybody’s been watching the El Chapo trial, a lot of the details of how drug cartels move drugs into this country have been outlined, and it’s coming through our ports of entry in bulk.

There are many communities in which the deaths by drug overdose have eclipsed deaths on highways, vehicular deaths, or homicides. In some communities, it’s higher than both those two categories combined. These are challenges. We have an opportunity to try and solve this. Let’s do it.

RR: You were just appointed to the House Appropriations Committee. How does this appointment help amplify your voice when it comes to opposing a border wall and advocating for alternative border security proposals?

WH: One of the problems we have, when we try to negotiate on some of these big issues, is the people that have the experience and the understanding of the issue are not necessarily the ones negotiating the deal. Details matter. And so when it comes to funding issues, being on the committee of jurisdiction allow me to have a voice.

I’m looking forward to working with Henry Cuellar [a Democratic Congressman from Laredo]. I always call him a fellow San Antonian. I know he’s from Laredo, but he does so much for our city and he represents part of San Antonio.

RR: Other than cost, what are some of the other reasons you oppose building a border wall?

WH: Building a wall from sea to sea makes no sense. Now in some places, a physical barrier does make sense. The reason a physical barrier makes sense is it helps Border Patrol respond to a threat. So if Border Patrol’s response time is measured in hours to days, a wall is not [an effective] barrier. There is so much of Texas that’s like that. Also, I don’t think the government should be coming in and taking people’s land and taking a half-mile swath of the land through their entire property. A thousand landowners in Texas could be impacted by this.

Some of the suggestion is to put the wall inside the border so it’s not actually on the border in some places. It’s miles inside. So what you are doing is cutting off almost 1.1 million acres of arable land – cutting that off from the owners. Some of the land is land that can be used, tilled 300 days out of the year. So not having access to the Rio Grande is in some areas is going to have a disastrous impact on our farmers and ranchers. Because of the current tariff war, they’re being especially impacted. And the uncertainty around NAFTA 2.0 or the [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement] is another thing that is impacting our farming and ranching communities. Protecting our farmers and ranchers, protecting our food supply, is actually a national security issue.

RR: What is the message a wall would send to Mexican retail tourists, who spend a lot of money in the United States during peak holiday seasons? Do you think the retail industry would be impacted by a wall?

WH: I think the rhetoric around this issue is what’s having an impact. Ultimately dealing with drug trafficking organizations and kingpin human smugglers is a shared problem between us and Mexico. People forget Mexico deports more Central Americans than the United States does, and this is a similar problem they’re having to deal with.

We should be working with our partner and friend and neighbor, the government of Mexico, on this shared issue. But I think … some people interpret this rhetoric as whether or not we value people from other countries and people from other ethnicities, and that is what could potentially have an impact on the international commerce that is so important to Texas and the rest of the country.

RR: What do you tell your constituents who support building a border wall?

WH: I talk to everybody the same. I explain the way we achieve true operational control of the border – that means knowing what’s coming back and forth across the border. And that the only way we’re going to actually do that is by looking at all 2,000 miles of the border at the same time. And the only way you can do that is through technology.

I try to get people to focus on the metrics I think we should be focusing on – are we seeing a decrease in drugs? Are we seeing a decrease in illegal immigration? We should not be measuring how many numbers of “X” tool we’re using. The outcome we’re trying to impact is those two issues of drugs and illegal immigration. Most people recognize and understand that technology is important. Most people recognize and understand that our border is important. The difference with my constituents – these are people that live with this issue every single day. My constituents that live along the border know that these are some of the safest communities in the United States of America.

They also know that you can secure our border and facilitate the movement of goods, services, and people all at the same time. I’ve been talking about this since 2009, and I just try to explain the issue and explain why I’ve come to these conclusions … based on data and information.

RR: You’re proposing running a fiber-optic cable along the border, a virtual barrier as opposed to a physical one. Talk about that and why you think it would be more effective.

WH: I’m agnostic to the technology. What I think we need to do is have a mile-by-mile assessment of what we think is the best tool. In some places a really good camera with night vision is enough. In some places you’re going to need Lidar and radar because of the type of ground cover and brush that is potentially there.

You could do sensing based off of a fiber optic cable. One of the ideas I love about using a fiber optic cable is that gives you an ability to connect communities along the border to have high-speed internet access. This is an opportunity to decrease the digital divide in some of these areas.

We should be using drones at some of these areas – radar, Lidar, you name it. These are different tools for different locations, but this should be a total package so that at any point in time the head of Border Patrol can say, ‘Hey, what’s happening at mile marker 37?’ We should be able to do that. Right now most of the technology that is being used is 20 years old. In some cases the technology is not on the border. In some cases you almost need a Ph.D. in computer science to know how to use this stuff. And a lot of that information is not getting in the hands of the man or women in Border Patrol that are in pursuit or doing apprehensions.

RR: Why do you think government shutdowns have become increasingly common in this decade?

WH: I don’t know. Honestly, no one’s ever explained to me who’s won a government shutdown. I don’t know why this is a tool. I also don’t know how every state can pass a budget and not be in these positions. It doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t make sense to negotiate on the backs of the men and women who are trying to keep us safe. I wish I knew the answer to that. I could try to prevent this thing in the future.

RR: This shutdown is about securing our borders, but is there an argument to be made that it is making our national security more vulnerable?

WH: It is still more likely that if someone from Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al-Shabaab, or Jaish-e-Mohammed – you name the group – to get a fake passport from Europe and come through our airports. That is still more likely for a terrorist that is wanting to do something against American citizens. When you force men and women in TSA to either find other jobs or stay at home because they can’t pay for daycare for their kids [that] decreases the number of people that are able to review and protect our airports. That’s a problem. The fact that many of our major airports had to shut down terminals because they don’t have enough TSA officers, which means you have a smaller number of TSA officers reviewing a higher number of passengers, that’s a problem.

Let’s take cybersecurity. When we’re fully staffed we don’t have enough people. The average large U.S. company gets 54 million hack attempts on their infrastructure a year. That’s just one company. Think about how many the U.S. government gets, and we’re only operating at 60 percent. … I’m concerned that we are impacting the exact people we need in order to keep us safe.

RR: You have said you did not vote for President Trump. You have been fairly vocal when you don’t see eye to eye with him, but you have generally voted for measures he supports. How would you assess the job the president is doing right now?

WH: I’m real simple. I agree when I agree. I disagree when I disagree. Because of the steps that were taken at the beginning of this administration, ISIS is on the run. … Ultimately, there are some things I agree with, there are some things I disagree with. It’s the same way I operated under President Obama.

RR: You just participated in the MLK March here in San Antonio. What lessons can we take from MLK during this period of political disharmony?

WH: Look, he always talked about love and to represent we’re one people. I think that’s a message we need to take. I heard the president of Huston-Tillotson University yesterday, and she said we’ve eliminated discrimination from our laws, we’ve eliminated from our institutions, but we still haven’t eliminated discrimination from people’s hearts and minds.

I think that’s what we try to do in San Antonio every year during the MLK March. I think that’s a lesson that we have to take through every single day. Ultimately, way more unites us than divides and if we can focus on things that unite us, then we can get things done.

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.