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Torres Small favors ‘carefully placed’ border barriers based on detailed plan


Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-New Mexico, joins lawmakers on a fact-finding tour of a Border Patrol holding facility in Alamogordo in early January, where an 8-year-old migrant child from Guatemala spent the final hours of his life. Standing with her is Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas. (Angela Kocherga, Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

One of New Mexico’s newest members of Congress, Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small is often painted as an advocate of open borders, but on Thursday she stressed that is not the case.

Torres Small represents New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, which shares about 180 miles of its southern border with Mexico. Physical barriers, she said, make sense when they are strategically placed.

In an interview about her new committee assignments in Congress, she also discussed border issues. She will chair the Subcommittee on Oversight, Management and Accountability for the Committee on Homeland Security, and will sit on the House Armed Services Committee.

About 65 percent of New Mexico’s border with Mexico “already has a physical barrier of some kind,” Torres Small said. And they can be effective when they have been “carefully placed, based on a detailed plan about where it makes the most sense.”

New Mexico’s other first-term congresswoman, Democratic Rep. Debra Haaland, who represents the 1st Congressional District, has been selected as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, and will sit on the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.

Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján has represented the 3rd Congressional District since 2009. He sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the Subcommittee for Health, the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, and the Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

Regarding barriers on the border, Torres Small said, “I’m very grateful to have had the experience of living and working on the border. I started working for Sen. (Tom) Udall right after the first fence or physical barrier was put up. When that happened, I talked to Customs and Border Patrol about how it was done, and it was done very carefully.

“I’ve seen places where a physical barrier works, because they divide the terrain based on the time it takes for someone avoiding detection to disappear, whether it’s in a car or into urban populations. In some places, it is seconds to minutes, in other places it is minutes to hours, and in places like the New Mexico bootheel, it can be hours to days.”

That’s why it’s important to design and place walls according to the terrain.

“We’ve seen that barriers really work to delay people from crossing; so if it delays someone 20 minutes, that makes a big difference in an urban area where you can get an agent there quickly to interdict them,” she said. “But when it takes days to cross a desert, that 20 minutes doesn’t do a whole lot of good.”

The last time Congress passed legislation about physical barriers, “it was based on a detailed plan about how it would be implemented on the ground, with mile-by-mile analysis,” she said. “So just throwing out a number and saying you want to build physical barriers isn’t enough to create real border security.”

Ranchers in New Mexico’s remote Bootheel recently told the Journal they support barriers along the border, especially in light of the large groups of migrants illegally crossing by simply stepping over low fencing in recent months.

One challenge Torres Small hopes to address on the oversight subcommittee is a shortage of Border Patrol officers.

“We have to make sure that we are recruiting and getting the right people there with the right training, and then be able to retain them,” she said.

Recruitment and retention are particularly difficult in the most remote reaches of our border, and where interdiction efforts require “more boots on the ground.”

Torres Small also said she was excited to sit on the House Armed Services Committee. She noted that two military installations are in her district – Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range, “which has the largest restricted air space that’s over land in the country,” she said. Because of their location, it’s critically important to support the communities that support the installations’ missions, which in turn supports our country’s national defense.

Haaland said in a statement that among her priorities on the Natural Resources Committee are “tackling climate change, and building a strong renewable energy economy in New Mexico and around the country.”

New Mexico is poised to be a leader in solar energy production, she said, and the plains east of the Sandia Mountains in particular “are ripe for wind energy production and industry.”

According to a statement from Luján, the House Energy and Commerce Committee “will take the lead on some of the most consequential policy initiatives this Congress,” addressing health disparities, clean energy innovation, strengthening consumers’ privacy protections and bolstering broadband infrastructure.