The congressman said that if Cruz had an office somewhere along Texas' 1,200-mile southern border, he'd understand the issues along it better.
"I think you need to have a listening post in a place like El Paso, which has been deemed the safest city in the United States for two or three years in a row," said Rep. Pete Gallego, a Democrat whose massive 23rd Congressional district comprises a third of the entire U.S.-Mexico border.
In recent public statements, Cruz has been claiming that he wants to stake out a middle ground on immigration reform, giving those who want to work in the United States a legal way to do so without giving a path to citizenship to those who are here illegally.
But in a June speech to the Senate, Cruz said he would not support any reform bill until the United States established "100 percent operational control" of its border with Mexico.
A few weeks earlier, he voted to block debate of an immigration bill hashed out by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight."
"The insecurity of our borders is causing human tragedies in our country, many, many of which are occurring in my home state
of Texas," Cruz told the Senate on June 22. "Central to any debate over immigration is the need to secure our borders."
Cruz later added, "Right now, our borders are anything but secure."
Cruz proposed to secure the border by tripling the size of the border patrol and quadrupling the number of helicopters and cameras on the border and completing a double-layered border fence.
But he and his staff
didn't respond to written questions last week asking how much that would cost, what "operational control" means or how it would be measured.
"Nobody knows what that means -- and you never get 100 percent of anything," Gallego said.
Hopes were high for a comprehensive immigration-reform bill last year after the drubbing Hispanic voters gave the GOP.
But opposition from conservatives such as Cruz slowed progress. Now the effort seems likely to die as debate about Syria, funding the government and implementation of the Affordable Care Act are poised to absorb Congress' attention this fall.
In the spring, Gallego was optimistic about the chances for immigration reform.
"Now I'm a little disheartened," he said. "I wish it was public-policy related, but I really think it's about politics."
When Cruz made his speech to the Senate on June 22, he said his opposition to passing a reform bill without ending illegal immigration was about life and death.
President Ronald Reagan helped pass a bill in 1986 that gave amnesty to the 3 million who were then in the country illegally, Cruz said. Despite promises to enhance border security, the number has since swelled to 11 million, he said.
"Which comes first, legalization or border security?" he asked, later adding, "That is the No. 1 issue -- border security."
Cruz pointed to Brooks County, just north of the Valley cities of McAllen, Harlingen and Edinburg, as an example of the importance of border security.
Last year, the bodies of 129 undocumented people -- many from Central America -- were found on remote ranches about 65 to 70 miles north of the border, Chief Deputy Sheriff Benny Martinez said in a phone interview last week from the Brooks County seat in Falfurrias.
Brooks County Judge Raul Ramirez said people are being smuggled across the border by coyotes and then die as they try to make their way north around the Border Patrol checkpoint on U.S. 281.
"The whole concept is to get past the checkpoint," Ramirez said.
The problem in Brooks County isn't just humanitarian, it's also fiscal.
It cost $200,000 to bury those who died in the rugged ranchlands.
That blew a big hole in the already-overstretched budget of a county that has just 7,200 residents, Ramirez said.
Martinez, the sheriff's deputy, is trying to get the word out about his county's plight and that of those who try to sneak through it.
"I'm frustrated," he said. "These dead bodies are happening right here on U.S. soil."
But while Martinez agrees with Cruz that increased security on the border will help, he said that has to be accompanied by other measures.
"Will the border be 100 percent secure? No," he said. "In the meantime, there will be more dead bodies."
Martinez said increased security should be accompanied by a system making it possible for people wanting to come to the United States for work to do so legally.
There's an important distinction between that and Cruz's June 22 proposal -- to delay all reforms until there is "100 percent operational control" of the border.
"I would hate for all these dead bodies, all these rape cases, to become collateral damage," Martinez said. "When we say they came in illegally, they're just criminalized."
Gallego said Texas needs their labor.
The booming Eagle Ford Shale region -- a formation of gas and oil deposits sweeping from north of Laredo to east of Austin -- has a well-known shortage of workers.
Gallego, who comes from a family of restaurateurs, said, "This is the perfect time to open a 24-hour restaurant there. The problem is, somebody has to wash the dishes."
In the absence of an immigration-reform law, people will continue to have an incentive to cross and work illegally, Gallego said.
That's a fact that Cruz might understand better if he had an office along the border, Gallego said.
Among the questions Cruz didn't answer last week was one asking why he has an office in Tyler but not El Paso, a border city that's more than seven times as big.
In Cruz's Senate speech, he claimed a special expertise about the border because he represents Texas.
"It is interesting seeing senators who represent states very, very far from the border standing up with complete confidence saying what we need to do to secure our border," Cruz said.
Gallego, who also represented a big stretch of the border during his 20 years in the Texas House, said Cruz also could benefit from being closer to the border.
"I think there is a disconnect between those of us who have a presence on the border every day and those of us who parachute in for a day or two," Gallego said.
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