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Torres Small gives her thoughts on border security

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U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, center, of New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, talks to the media after touring the U.S. Border Patrol station in Alamogordo on Jan. 7. (Duane Barbati Photo / Alamogordo Daily News via AP)

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U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-NM, said in an interview Thursday the debate over border security needs to go beyond political slogans and concentrate on facts that will lead to meaningful solutions.

Torres Small — whose New Mexico 2nd Congressional District includes Chaves County and all of the southern part of the state — is a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, the only one of 30 members on the committee that represents a district on the southern border.

Unlike many in Washington D.C., she said border security is an issue she is familiar with, and that there needs to be less heated rhetoric — and more facts — injected into the debate.

“Growing up along the border, working along the border, working with people who make a living ranching, or agents working with businesses and ports of entry, I know what we need and the specifics on the ground, but the farther away you get from that, the more you rely on political talking points that are more divisive rather than trying to find solutions,” she said.

One of the biggest challenges, she said, is that in the discussion about border security, people aren’t looking at the big picture.

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“We have real challenges we have to face, so that is why we have to look at specifics on the ground and the changing trends that are happening there,” Torres Small said.

Torres Small, a former Las Cruces water rights attorney elected to the U.S. House in November, will have a chance to influence policy about the border after being appointed chair of the Oversight, Management and Accountability Subcommittee.

The committee is responsible for conducting oversight and handling legislation related to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security headquarters, such as hiring and retaining personnel and how best to direct funds and technology.

Her subcommittee will also have jurisdiction over law enforcement training centers such as the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia.

One of the biggest issues the subcommittee will deal with is the ability of Customs and Border Patrol to recruit and retain agents, something Torres Small said is a major issue.

“We are actually not filling the existing appropriated staffing levels, especially in the most rural reaches of the border,” she said.

The number of openings for border patrol agents is something that is not public information, Torres Small said. However, the situation is especially acute in the most remote stretches of the Border Patrol’s El Paso District, which includes New Mexico’s 175 miles of border.

Her committee will also examine how law enforcement, including border security, can best use its resources, in terms of manpower, technology and money. This includes how to pare down on waste and inefficiencies, something especially vital on the border because the border patrol often has to shift resources in response to changing circumstances.

One such example, she said, is making sure there is updated technology, in addition to a sufficient number of border patrol agents.

The border patrol has surveillance trucks used to monitor people seeking to evade detection. Some of the more antiquated models don’t provide a clear picture when there is a great deal of movement.

“So, we need the most up-to-date technology for this surveillance, otherwise it is not effective on the ground,” she said.

The push to erect a wall along the southern border was not only a hallmark of President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, but his administration. His refusal in December to sign a temporary spending bill for several federal government agencies unless $5.7 billion was included for border wall construction led to a standoff with congressional Democrats and the longest government shutdown in history.

It ended with Trump signing a three-week stop gap resolution, but absent additional funding, the agencies affected in the last shutdown could once again close if money is not appropriated for a border wall.

Torres Small said there are some areas along the southern border where a physical barrier might be effective. Although a barrier might not prevent someone from crossing the border, in some areas it could slow people entering the country illegally down long enough for law enforcement to come to the scene. Those places would be near cities, where law enforcement has a short window of time to catch someone before they blend into a crowd or jump into a vehicle.

A barrier, however, in a remote area of desert that takes days for someone to cross and law enforcement to get to, would not be effective.

The debate over a wall must be accompanied by specifics as to where it can be most effective, she said. When Congress last appropriated money for physical barriers along the border, it was because there was a plan as to where those barriers would do the most good.

Both Congress and the White House, she said, must come to the bargaining table with specifics to guide the policy-making process.

“Just throwing a number out for a physical barrier isn’t a plan, and it doesn’t get us anywhere,” she said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.