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El Pasoans talk border security on Capitol Hill

Two El Pasoans had their say in a committee hearing in Washington, D.C., about border issues.

El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar joined U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, for the House homeland security hearing on border security. O’Rourke is a member of the subcommittee that was holding the hearing. Escobar was invited through her connection to O’Rourke and her past relationships in Washington through her ties to federal lobby teams.

The meeting was held to determine what constitutes a secure border.

Candice Miller, the chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, called the hearing to help build metrics. Those metrics would be used to determine whether the money spent on security is doing what it is meant to.

In the past, apprehensions and arrests along the United States’ border have been used to show how secure the border is. Escobar has made comments that those numbers don’t depict whether a border is safe or not, pointing to El Paso’s awards as America’s safest city.

“Actually, there is a lot more that we know, but the dilemma is being simple,” said Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner with the Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection department.

Borkowski argued that more items are looked at than acquisitions, but that in an effort to simplify the numbers, officials often highlight the apprehension numbers.

Escobar’s comments were quite different from her counterparts. Borkowski was joined by two others from the CBP or Border Patrol. Escobar was the only nongovernment employee to speak. She said that a secure border has more to do with the movement of people across the border.

“Since we’re talking about metrics today, one of the metrics El Paso and other communities have asked about for years now has been staffing statistics at each of our ports,” said Escobar. “It’s very difficult to fully understand how to address the lack of personnel at the ports when the statistics about the specific number of CBP personnel at each port isn’t available to local leaders or even the members of Congress who represent us in D.C.”

Her comments were tied to a bill supported by members of the subcommittee she was speaking to before. The bill, the Cross Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2013, would encourage public-private partnerships to boost staffing and make infrastructure improvements at U.S. ports of entry.

O’Rourke spent some of his allotted time during the hearing to press Border Patrol officials on the same item. Asking how they can enact such legislation if the Border Patrol doesn’t release staffing information.

“Without your willingness to share that data, how can we make that informed decision?” asked O’Rourke.

The hearing precedes more extensive talks that are expected to take place in the coming months. A group known as the “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of senators, is expected to hash out an immigration reform plan. Miller referred to the group multiple times explaining it made what they were discussing that much more important.

“I think we have an opportunity, as a country, to get something done on this very important issue,” said Miller.

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