U.S. House committee approves Texan's bill to put $10 billion toward border wall

A congressional committee voted Wednesday to send to the full U.S. House a bill appropriating $10 billion toward building a border wall, but not before some Texas Democrats found ways to mock the proposal.

Ordered under the George W. Bush administration, a controversial and incomplete border wall along the Rio Grande River in South Texas has had environmental and cultural impacts.

Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON – The House Homeland Security Committee voted to send a bill to the full U.S. House on Wednesday that aims to follow through on President Donald Trump’s campaign promise of constructing a wall at the United States' southern border. 

The bill from U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, an Austin Republican and the committee's chairman, included $10 billion toward building a wall. It passed out of committee on a party-line, 17-12 vote.

“We will never successfully secure our homeland until we are capable of controlling who can lawfully enter our country,” McCaul said in his opening statement.

McCaul and the five other members of the Texas delegation who sit on the committee played starring roles in the hearing, which was not without a few fireworks. 

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U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, proposed a series of amendments he said aimed “to hold the president to his promise” made on the campaign trail. The suggested amendments were clearly made in jest and to put his Republican colleagues in the uncomfortable situation of voting against some of Trump's trademark promises. 

Vela’s first amendment defined the term “border wall system” within the bill to include 19 different ways the president had described the wall during his campaign including "big and beautiful,” “see through,” “real,” “not a fence,” “made of rebar and steel” and “aesthetically-pleasing and consistent with the general surrounding environment.”  

“I offer this amendment to provide the members of the committee the clearest picture to date of the conflicting and absurd vision that the President has for his wall,” Vela said. “A vote for this amendment is a vote for Donald Trump’s vision, a yes vote for this amendment is a vote for his big, beautiful wall. I will vote no on this amendment.”

A separate Vela amendment would have required delaying the construction of the wall until Mexico agrees in writing to reimburse the United States for “all costs associated with the construction” of a border wall.

With a Republican majority on the committee, neither amendment was adopted.

Other Democrats on the committee proposed amendments to change the name of the bill to “Taking Americans’ Land to Build Trump’s Wall Act of 2017” and to eliminate the section of the bill authorizing the wall completely.

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Vela, an open critic of the border wall, also raised concerns about the government using eminent domain, a process where the government can seize private land, to build the wall. 

He proposed an amendment that would have required the Department of Homeland Security to formally tell Congress that exercising eminent domain to build the wall was necessary for homeland security and that there are no other alternatives. That amendment fell only one vote short of passing.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, successfully amended the bill to add language asserting that the wall would not be built in areas where “natural terrain, “natural barriers” or “remoteness” would make it “ineffective.” 

Hurd’s amendment passed with Republican support. Most Democrats voted no, arguing that it still authorized a wall to be built. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, voted present.

“Since 2009, I have been saying that building a wall from sea to shining sea is the least effective and most expensive solution to border security,” Hurd said. “This is especially true in areas like Big Bend National Park, where rough terrain, natural barriers and remoteness of a location render a wall or other structure impractical and ineffective.”

Both Hurd and Jackson Lee raised concerns about protecting endangered wildlife along the border. Hurd’s amendment added a clause that would respect existing agreements between national parks and U.S. Customs and Border Protection with regards to preserving national parks such as Big Bend.

Jackson Lee said building a wall along the border was poor use of the committee’s time, talking often about domestic terrorism and DACA, an Obama-era immigration program that the Trump administration plans to shut down, throughout the hearing.

“I believe that what we are doing here today is a misdirection, a wrong journey, a failure to the American people,” Jackson Lee said. She urged the committee “to look seriously at how we protect the American people at all of our borders.”

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U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has authored a similar piece of legislation, released a statement in support of the bill after the hearing.

“We can’t expect law enforcement to curb illegal immigration without equipping them with the tools they need to secure our border,” Cornyn said. “I commend the Committee for taking this critical first step, and I look forward to continuing my work with Chairman McCaul to advance our border security solution.”