Immigration Debate Divides Laredo

House Republicans have held recent public hearings in towns along the U.S.-Mexico border, spreading their concept of immigration policy. In Laredo, Texas, emotions ran high on both sides.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

And this week House Republicans have been spending a lot of time along the U.S./Mexico border. That's where they've been holding public hearings and suggesting that terrorists can blend in with illegal immigrants and sneak into the United States. Democrats have called the hearings a political sham, but they've taken part in them.

NPR's Carrie Kahn was at a hearing in Laredo, Texas last night, and she has this report.

CARRIE KAHN: The setting for this latest hearing was a hotel in downtown Laredo just two blocks from the Mexico border. House Republicans found a receptive audience for their message, that they won't compromise on immigration reform until the border is secure. Congressman Ted Poe of Houston says foreign threats are real.

TED POE: And we are fighting terrorists half way across the world. We are protecting the borders of other nations as a federal entity. We ought to protect our own borders. It's a national security issue to protect our borders from those who wish to do us harm.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

KAHN: Sheriff of nearby Zapata County, Sigifredo Gonzalez, told the panel that terrorists can easily get into Mexico, learn Spanish, and come across the border as a typical illegal worker. He says even he's been mistaken for a Middle Easterner.

SIGIFREDO GONZALEZ: Because of my features, I'm proud of the nose that I inherited from my father...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: ...and my skin tone, but I was confused with a person from the Middle East. These are things we're having to deal with on the border, because we are seeing people from all over coming into our communities, from all over.

KAHN: Gonzalez says he's recovered grenade launchers and bulletproof vests from trails heavily traveled by illegal crossers. And another witness, an employee of a federal watchdog agency, talked about a recent drill in which agents successfully transported across the border materials that could have been used to make a dirty bomb.

But Democrats turned the blame for lagging border security on Republicans. During questioning of Laredo's mayor, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston drove that point home.

SHEILA JACKSON LEE: Help us understand how we can be more effective than having masquerading hearings about terrorism and not getting to you need to have happen? And let me know, is a wall going to help you? Is creating felons out of those who are in the fields picking grapefruits going to help you?

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTORS)

KAHN: Outside the hearing room, activists on both sides of the debate tried to drown each other out with dueling bullhorns.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTORS)

KAHN: Sally Sully of San Antonio held several placards reading, Shut down the border now, and, The USA is ours. She said she wanted to go inside but didn't want to leave her signs behind.

SALLY SULLY: But I worked too hard on these to dump them in a trashcan and go in there. They won't let me talk in there, you know. Y'all listen out here.

KAHN: She says the current laws defend illegal immigrants more than Americans. Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas says he's worried about defending his townspeople.

RAUL G: Let's walk this way.

KAHN: Salinas heads a block down the street to the busy border station, filled with shoppers coming in from Mexico. He says the Republican's bill that includes hundreds of miles of border walls would devastate Laredo.

SALINAS: These are people that are sustaining our economy by 40 percent. And I'm going to close the door on them and put a wall? You don't do that. It's like a slap in the face.

KAHN: Salinas says he hopes members of Congress will go back to Washington and hash out a bill that better reflects the realities of life here at the border.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Laredo.

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