While protecting Santa Ana refuge, spending bill funds 33 miles of border wall in RGV

While conflating the border with the military and declaring his displeasure for the $1.3 trillion Omnibus spending package, President Donald Trump signed the bill Friday to avoid a looming government shutdown.

I will never sign another bill like this again,” Trump said after tweeting early on Friday that he was considering a veto. “Nobody read it. It’s only hours old.”

Two things he was happy about, though, were the $1.6 billion related to the border wall, as well as adding “large numbers of immigration judges.” The bill funds 100 new teams of judges, according to Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo.

Trump wants to stop “drugs from flowing over our borders by having a strong border system, including a wall,” he said. “We are in a position, militarily, which is very advantageous.”

Trump then called Defense Secretary James Mattis to the lectern inside the White House Diplomatic Reception Room to talk about military gains.

Once Mattis concluded, Trump talked further about border security and the wall.

We’re starting work on, literally, Monday,” Trump said.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said “this is a down payment on a border wall system.”

I will say, however, that Congress chose not to listen to the men and women of DHS,” Nielsen, who has visited the Valley twice in the last 14 months, said. “They told us where to build the wall and how to build the wall.”

The bill calls for 25 miles of wall funding in Hidalgo County and 8 miles in Starr County. It includes language preventing those funds from being used to deploy barriers in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which was originally slated by the Trump Administration as the starting point for the wall.

Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, who voted against the bill, called the refuge’s omission a “major consolation,” but was not pleased with the hundreds of millions of dollars appropriated for wall funding in the Valley.

To me, it’s astonishing that any Democrat would vote for a nickel of funding for any wall whatsoever,” Vela said.

Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, also voted against the bill. Voting in favor were Cuellar and Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso. The bill passed the House on Thursday by a vote of 256-167.

The Senate passed the bill on Friday by a vote of 65-32. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, voted in favor of the bill while Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, voted against it.

Cornyn immediately praised portions of the bill, including border security. He pointed out the “replacement and upgrade of existing primary fencing along the entire U.S.-Mexico border; additional border security technology for situational awareness; and prevents funds from being used to deploy barriers in Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.”

Cruz on Thursday said in a statement that the bill “fails to provide sufficient funds to properly secure our border, let alone build the wall that is necessary.”

The additional immigration judges are being added to address a backlog of 667,000 pending cases, almost half of which are asylum claims, Cuellar said. There is also language in the bill directing new judges to border regions with the highest workloads.

The immigration teams funded include judges, support staff, technology and work space, according to the Laredo congressman.

Increasing the number of judges to process immigration cases is a common sense solution that should appeal to everyone, no matter how you feel about immigration policy,” Cuellar said. “Our immigration courts are in dire need of additional judges to expeditiously adjudicate these cases.”

Other provisions in the budget bill will address delays in the review of immigration cases that can drag on for years, Cuellar said. Included are $35 million for justice information sharing technology and $504.5 million for the Executive Office for Immigration Review which will be used to accelerate the hiring process for new judges.

The 100 new judge teams in the 2018 budget are in addition to 10 new judges added in the 2017 budget and 55 added in the 2016 budget.

Those covered by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program, however, did not receive the protections in the bill they were hoping for.

I do want the Hispanic community to know and the DACA recipients to know that the Republicans are much more on your side than the Democrats, who are using you for their own purposes,” Trump said.

Vela tweeted at Trump after he signed the bill, “If you like DACA recipients so much, rescind your DACA ORDER! #DREAMActNow”

Trump ended the DACA program in September but its future is now tied up in the federal court system.

mferman@themonitor.com