Hidalgo County judge chimes in on debate over border wall

Richard Cortez speaks after being sworn in as the Hidalgo County judge during a ceremony in the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

President Trump will land in McAllen today to push his border security agenda as the partial government shutdown over funding for a border wall enters its 20th day, threatening to become the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

Trump’s noon arrival at McAllen Miller International Airport once again places the national spotlight on the Rio Grande Valley, an area often referred to as ground zero for immigration and drug trafficking. It also marks the first presidential visit to the region since 2006, when former President George W. Bush came to push his own immigration plan.

“Quite honestly, not much has changed since then,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said Wednesday. “We continue to grow; our business with Mexico continues to grow; immigrants continue to come; drugs continue to come. So it’s just a continuation of the past.”

Cortez is no stranger to the issue.

Having served two terms as mayor of McAllen from 2006 to 2013, he was at the forefront when Bush came to tout his five-point immigration plan in 2006, which included plans for a border fence throughout various sections of the Valley.

Bush delivered his speech at the Anzalduas County Park, where Trump is also set to visit Thursday afternoon.

Bush’s plan eventually materialized via the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized the construction of about 700 miles of border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, with about 20 of those built in Hidalgo County.

“I was involved in those debates,” Cortez said about the first push to build a wall along Hidalgo County.

Local leaders at the time partnered with the federal government to design a barrier that also reinforced the levees and provided flood protection for residents living along the Rio Grande.

“The county was going to build some levees for county purposes, and the suggestion was, ‘Why don’t we use the levees as a barrier?’ The only difference is, instead of being right on the river, it’s further inland from the river, but it’s still a barrier,” Cortez recalled.

When all was said and done, Hidalgo County taxpayers ended up paying $44 million, or 24 percent of the total cost of the project.

Today, the administration wants to build an additional 25 miles along Hidalgo County, with some of the construction slated to begin next month.

Coincidentally, the new proposal threatens to shutter the park where Trump is scheduled to visit, as well as other ecotourism spots located along the county, such as the National Butterfly Center in Mission.

And unlike the previous partnership between the local and federal government, Cortez doesn’t see it as a viable option.

“There’s absolutely no way that the county has any money, or, in my opinion, can allocate any money for the creation of a barrier wall here,” he said. “That’s not our role. We have enough unfunded mandates to deal with, much less trying to build a wall. Most of us here believe that it’s not the best use of funds.”

While serving as McAllen mayor, Cortez witnessed an event that convinced him barriers delay, but don’t stop the flow of people or narcotics. While standing at the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, which the city of McAllen co-owns, Cortez saw three people approach a fence and work together to get one of them across the barrier.

“And it took seconds,” he said. “I saw it and this was at two o’clock in the afternoon — officers all over the place. Green uniforms, blue uniforms, white uniforms, I mean, all over the place, and it went boom, like that.”

The new county judge supports increased border security and believes some areas do require a physical barrier, but in an imperfect world, a wall stretching across the southwestern border is not a perfect solution, he said.

“Anybody would be crazy to say that we don’t want security, but we have limited resources. We don’t have money to do everything we want to do or needs to be done, so we have to use our money wisely,” Cortez said. “So the question is, what is the best use for the money?”

Gov. Greg Abbott met with five border mayors just before Christmas, he said, and one of them suggested additional aerostats and boats to patrol the Rio Grande, which acts as a natural barrier.

“The mayor said, ‘Look, when the blimp is up there nobody crosses cause the blimp is watching, but we get heavy winds over here (and) the blimp comes down and you see everybody crossing,’” Cortez recalled. “He says, ‘But one thing’s for sure, when the boats are patrolling the river, then nobody crosses.’”

Such solutions, though “not as juicy as a wall,” could help curb illicit activity, the county judge said.

“I’ve talked to the Border Patrol people and I’ve said, ‘Look, I want to be your advocate. I want to help you get whatever resources you need to do your job the best. So tell me, is a fence, a physical fence, the best use of our money?’ And I always get silence,” Cortez said. “They’re in an awkward position because they work for the government.”

Public opinion also plays a big role in the decisions politicians make, he added.

“If you want to stay in office, you have to flow with the public opinion. The problem that I see is, that the public opinion that we have right now is just simply wrong,” he said. “When people come here, and see the terrain, and see the situation, they kind of nod their heads and say, ‘Yep, you’re right.’ But they don’t change their mind because the public opinion hasn’t changed.”

Cortez doesn’t know if he will have the opportunity to speak to the president this time around, but he hopes Trump can walk away with a more informed image of the border.

“We’re letting politics dictate policy, when we ought to let the facts and the need dictate the action,” he said. “I don’t believe that there is a perfect solution to our problem, but there is a better way of doing it.”