Tester said he has a better perspective after visiting southern border
Last updated 3/28/2019 at 5:04pm
After a trip to the southern border, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he has a new understanding of the issues the country faces with border security.
"This overall experience that I have had on the southern border provided me with a better perspective, which was what I was looking for," Tester said. "A better perspective on how we need to secure the borders, while we do it in the most cost-effective way."
Tester said Wednesday during a telephone press conference from Washington that he spent 36 hours along the southern border over the weekend. He met with Customs and Border Patrol officials, farmers, landowners and law enforcement in the area to better understand the pressing issues they are facing.
Within the past few months the topic of border security and the wall has dominated debates in the capital, Tester said, and played a big role in the longest government shutdown in history.
Recently, President Donald Trump has unilaterally bypassed Congress to take money from military construction to build a wall on the southern border, he said.
The northern border faces its own unique security challenges, Tester said. He added that, over the years, he has brought homeland security officials up to Montana so they can fully understand those challenges.
This past weekend he shifted his focus to the southern border, he said.
While he was there, he visited the nation's largest immigration processing center, which is located in Texas, he said. He saw about 800 people who have come across the Rio Grande illegally and were being processed through the system in a facility there.
Tester said that many of the illegal immigrants are claiming asylum, however, a large portion of them do not have a fear of their governments but rather of crime, poverty and starvation.
He said he guessed the building was about 8,000 square feet. It was also insulated and air conditioned. At the time he toured the facility, Border Patrol officials told him they had a lower number of people detained than normal. He added that the facility was crowded but everyone there had access to latrines, sinks, blankets and mats.
The number of people in the facility amazed him, he said - the total number was larger than the population of Big Sandy.
"Especially when they are kids, man, it breaks your heart," he said. "... It was a gut-wrenching sight. I saw not only men, but women and children, in conditions that were as humane as they possibly could be, but still left a lot to the imagination."
While he was there he also toured the Rio Grande by boat, he said.
"I'll tell you right off the top, the Rio Grande is a much bigger river than I anticipated," Tester said.
He said he met with local landowners who are dealing with eminent domain issues on their land. One landowner told him 400 to 500 acres would be cut off by the proposed wall. He told Tester that his land would become a "no man's land."
Tester said that the wall would be cutting off high-value irrigated property where people grow a large amount of produce.
He said people told him that in 2016 the Border Patrol responded with technology and an increase in manpower. They added that this option addressed the issue while not "stealing their land."
"I think we need to keep that in mind as we are making policy in Washington, D.C.," Tester said.
While on the southern border, Tester said that he also visited two ports of entry, one dealing with car traffic and one with people walking through.
"It was amazing to see the technology they had there," he said. "It was amazing to see the jobs the port officials were doing making sure the people that were there had the proper paperwork and were legally allowed to come in."
He added that watching officials search vehicles for illegal drugs was a fascinating process.
"I think it is very obvious that we need to use every tool in our toolbox," he said, "whether it is technology, manpower or fencing where it makes since."
He added that legislators also needs to look at existing laws and take a closer look at where the money Congress has already appropriated is going.
The wall would be ultimately ineffective, he said, and "quite, frankly, a poor use of taxpayers dollars."
He added that a wall won't solve the complex problem of illegal immigration.
Tester said some of the things that could help would be stabilizing the food in countries like Guatemala. This isn't a new idea, he added.
"We have a very generous nation," he said. "I think it would be money well spent."
Also clearing the brush on the Rio Grande River would help, he said. Clearing the brush and noxious weeds would provide Border Patrol with a better opportunity to visually inspect the area.
He added that the solution would also need to utilize the technology available.
Farmers do not want a physical wall, he said, they want to use manpower and a technological wall.
"Over the course of the next few months, I am going to use my position on the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee to make smart border security investments," Tester said, "including more technology and more manpower to help give the folks on the ground the tools they need to succeed."
While he was on the southern border, Tester said, news broke on the Mueller report saying no collusion between the Donald Trump presidential campaign and Russia was found.
"I believe that the American people always deserve transparency in their government," he said. "The Mueller report should be made publicly available immediately and be released in full."
Tester said Montanans and the American people deserve a complete view of what the special found.
"I want to read it so I can make my own decisions," he said, "and I think that you guys expect the same."