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Residents along Texas border brace for immigration law

Representative Pete Gallego talked about immigration overhaul with constituents in Socorro, Texas.

Ed O’Keefe/Washington Post

Representative Pete Gallego talked about immigration overhaul with constituents in Socorro, Texas.

SOCORRO, Texas — There are 36 congressional districts in Texas, but the 23d is a geographic monster that swallows up almost a quarter of the state, stretching from little towns such as this one east of El Paso to the western suburbs of San Antonio.

One former representative used to say that he had to cross three climates and two time zones to get from one end of the district to the other.

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The district has about 800 miles of the US-Mexican border, the longest stretch in any House district, making it the place where the immigration overhaul will be most deeply felt.

People here know that immigration has consumed considerable political capital in Washington and they are watching apprehensively, preparing to live with the real-world consequences of whatever decision Congress makes. They are not encouraged by what they’re hearing, particularly about securing the border.

‘‘The problem is, you’ve got this huge Congress and most of them don’t live on the border and they’re the ones who are going to decide what we do,’’ said El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles.

Frustration here stems from realities on the ground. There are one, two, sometimes three layers of fencing along the border, or the terrain is too treacherous to cross, so people don’t want Congress to put up more fencing. Members of the US Border Patrol stand post every few thousand feet along some stretches of the divide, so locals don’t want Congress to send more agents.

They say that lawmakers should instead consider the economic benefits of legal immigration.

About 20 percent of the $500 billion traded annually between the United States and Mexico passes through ports of entry along this part of the border, and locals say the numbers would climb dramatically if trucks carrying goods could cross faster.

More than 100,000 jobs in the region rely on the lawful movement of people, goods, and services between the two countries, and officials predict that even more business and jobs would be created if Congress made it easier for guest workers to cross, or if illegal immigrants could come out of the shadows.

‘‘It would seem to me that the key to immigration reform is providing some type of work visas to shuffle out those who are just here to work and many times want to go home,’’ Wiles said. ‘‘They want to come, work, support their families, and eventually go home.’’

Cindy Ramos-Davidson, chief executive of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that Congress ‘‘gets so wrapped up in the process of people moving that they forget about the actual element of how that affects people. They throw all this money at drones and helicopters and such when they could instead spend it on legally moving people back and forth across the border.

‘‘Anybody who lives outside of a border community needs to come here and see how commerce and trade flows across the bridges,’’ she said. ‘‘All of these rules and regulations that apply to the border are made back East and many of the people have never seen what those policies do to bottleneck the borders.’’

As Republicans have tightened their hold on the Texas congressional delegation, the 23d remains a uniquely volatile political territory, switching parties five times in 20 years.

It is represented by Pete Gallego, a Democrat who won the seat by 5 points last year and has been trying to assure constituents that Congress will do something about immigration soon.

‘‘If immigration reform doesn’t happen, that doesn’t say good things about our democracy, that everybody wants it but Congress couldn’t pass it,’’ he said during a recent dinner meeting with constituents.

Heads around the table nodded, but folks didn’t seem as confident as the congressman; they worry that whatever Congress does may be the wrong thing.

Wiles commands a jurisdiction of about 1,000 square miles and his 260 deputies are often called upon to assist the US Border Patrol with immigration-related crimes, forcing them to abandon neighborhood patrols.

Cuts in federal spending have cost Wiles more than $1 million in funding for an antinarcotics unit and a school antiviolence program, so the push and pull from Washington is frustrating.

‘‘There have been many congressmen who want to come down and take a picture with you at the border crossings. I don’t do that anymore, because we never see any results,’’ Wiles said.

Wiles said other places along the border might need more federal agents and a fence, ‘‘but when they put one up here, they just put it up next to two other fences. That’s a waste of money.’’

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