California Democrat Scott Peters, a former environmental lawyer, represents a majority Anglo district near the Mexican border town of Tijuana.
Texas Republican Will Hurd, a 39-year-old former CIA officer who’s nearly two decades younger that Peters, represents a majority Latino district a thousand miles to the east that spans 40 percent of America’s border with Mexico.
Hurd has voted reliably with his party during his two terms in Congress, as has Peters with his party, although slightly less so, during his three terms. Both are targets of the opposite party’s campaign committee in 2018.
But when it comes to protecting the economic interests of the border region — and these members argue, the nation — they’ve often been “border members” first, and Republicans and Democrats second.
“People on the border get it,” Peters said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office last week.
Peters and his Democratic colleagues in the Congressional Border Caucus, along with Hurd, convened a late January hearing in Washington in which regional business leaders spoke about the importance of a strong economic relationship with Mexico.
“I don’t think most of them were Democrats,” Peters chuckled.
His guest wasn’t: Jerry Sanders, the president of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, is also a former Republican mayor and police chief of the city.
Sanders has seen up-close the kind of bipartisan collaboration that border issues have inspired. Back in 2013, five members of California’s congressional delegation from the San Diego area — Democrats Juan Vargas, Susan Davis and Peters and Republicans Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter — teamed up to secure federal funding for an expansion of the San Ysidro port of entry, one of the world’s busiest border crossings.
The spotlight President Donald Trump has shone on the southern border with his proposed wall has reinforced the regional allegiance that Republican and Democratic members along the border share, particularly when it comes to economic issues.
“They may say it in slightly different ways, but they have similar concerns,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former director of border policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In fact, Hurd, a member of Trump’s own party, is one of the wall’s strongest opponents. His district could be most affected by its construction. He’s called the president’s proposal “the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.”
Hurd faced one of the most competitive re-elections in the nation last fall, winning by 1 point in a district Hillary Clinton carried by 3. And he will likely face another close race next year.
Arizona Republican Martha McSally, who chairs a congressional subcommittee that oversees border security, also sits in a district won by Clinton.
“Not a continuous, 2,000-mile border wall, no,” she told angry town hall constituents late last month, distancing herself from Trump’s proposal.
And it’s not just vulnerable Republicans who have joined with Democrats in expressing skepticism about — or outright criticism of — the wall as Trump has sold it. Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, called for a more multi-faceted approach to securing the border last month.
While GOP leadership has warmed to the wall, rare is the border-state Republican who has fully embraced Trump’s proposal, Brown said.
“That’s because they know putting a wall in their district would have impacts to constituents that aren’t all good,” she said.
Republicans have traditionally been wary of eminent domain, and their ties to business interests make cross-border economic disruptions a paramount concern. Not to mention, the wall comes with a huge price tag that fiscal conservatives aren’t inclined to stomach.
The border adjustment tax, which would tax U.S. companies’ sales and imports at 20 percent, has inspired similar bipartisan consternation, with Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela touting that he and Republican Sen. John Cornyn, a fellow Texan, see eye-to-eye on the issue.
“We both agree that that proposal would be a disaster for the Texas economy,” the Blue Dog Democrat said last week.
Ties that bind
Bipartisan concerns about some of Trump’s border-related proposals are just the latest example of how it’s sometimes the geographic, rather than partisan, ties that bind on Capitol Hill.
“We work together on these issues because these are important issues to San Diego,” Issa said in an interview in the Speaker’s Lobby last week.
As a self-described “small r” Republican, the San Diego chamber’s Sanders has observed how proximity to the border has moderated Republicans’ views on trade or keeping families intact.
Brown, with the Bipartisan Policy Center, has seen similar effects. Border-district Democrats, she said, are sometimes more conservative than other members of their party on the border because their constituents may perceive a threat from immigration.
Blue Dog Democrat Henry Cuellar knows all about bucking his party. In 2014, he and Cornyn sponsored legislation to make it easier to send undocumented migrant children back to Central America — and he took grief from his party, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“I had to go against my party because I felt that, with all due respect, people from other places don’t understand the border better than I do,” Cuellar said.
Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke, a potential 2018 challenger to Sen. Ted Cruz, said he has made it his mission to convey to both his Democratic and Republican colleagues what living in El Paso is really like.
The 44-year-old liberal lawmaker has encountered plenty of misconceptions about his hometown.
“I was on the House Democrats’ baseball team, and we were throwing the ball one morning, and a colleague says, ‘So when you go home to El Paso, do you have a bodyguard? Do you carry a gun? Do you have some kind of protection?’ He really thought I lived in a war zone,” O’Rourke recalled in an interview outside the House chamber last week.
The three-term Democrat couldn’t think of any border-specific issues on which he’s agreed with Cruz. But he’s co-sponsored legislation with other Republicans, like the American Families United Act, which he recently re-introduced with New Mexico Republican Steve Pearce.
The bill would give immigration judges discretion over whether immediate family members of U.S. citizens who were previously banned from re-entry after a minor immigration violation could be eligible for a status adjustment.
“He feels differently than I do,” O’Rourke said of Pearce. “I believe in comprehensive immigration reform. I believe in a pathway to citizenship.”
“And yet, we were able to write this bill together,” O’Rourke said, attributing this to a shared understanding of border culture.
The problem is, the bill hasn’t gone anywhere.
“When I approach other members of Congress on these things, ‘Great idea, Beto, I like that you have a Republican or even a Senate Republican co-sponsor, would love to work on that with you — as soon as we secure the border,’” he said.
O’Rourke is concerned an obsession with border security and ignorance of the culture may have kept his legislation, originally introduced in the 113th Congress, from moving forward.
“As we get farther away from the border, you know, it’s not bad folks, it’s not out of malice, they just don’t understand how critical the U.S.-Mexico relationship is,” O’Rourke said.