Guest Column

What I Saw at the Southern Border

We need to do the hard job of better securing our borders in an effective, cost-efficient, and humane way

Over the past few months, border security has dominated the conversation in Washington, D.C.

The debate over how to best secure America’s borders led to a costly, 35-day government shutdown that left thousands of Montanans without a paycheck.

And President Donald Trump is now unilaterally bypassing Congress with his national emergency declaration by taking money from our military – raiding funds intended for Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana National Guard – to spend billions on a border wall that Republicans and Democrats alike rejected.

As a top official on the committee that funds the Department of Homeland Security, it’s my job to ensure we’re making smart border security investments to give the folks on the ground the tools they need to keep us safe. And I wanted to hear firsthand what those tools should be.

So I traveled to McAllen, Texas to meet with Customs and Border Protection officials, law enforcement, and local landowners, to hear about their challenges and determine how we in Washington can help find solutions.

I asked the $25 billion question: should that solution be a wall from sea to shining sea?

The answer was a resounding no.

I visited the nation’s largest immigration processing center, where those claiming asylum are processed. The scene there was gut-wrenching: more than 2,000 people in metal enclosures that were crowded and rudimentary. Many of them were young children – kids no different from my grandchildren, just born in a dangerous country.

A wall won’t stop these starving people fleeing gang violence in search of a better life here. Build a 30-foot wall, and people will find a 32-foot ladder, or dig a tunnel, to set foot on American soil.

As a farmer, it was also important to me to hear from local landowners who are threatened by big government land takings, i.e. eminent domain. I toured a family farm to see firsthand what’ll happen to one that’s been in a family for generations. These folks grow high-value crops like onions and lettuce, and they stand to lose nearly 500 acres if the wall is built on their land.

They’re not alone: the wall could separate more than a million miles of land across Texas because it’s built in a straight line while the river curves – creating a “no man’s land” on American soil, south of the wall and north of the river – essentially ceding this land from our country to Mexico.

The wall would devastate business and the livelihood of thousands of farmers in the Rio Grande Valley who feed this country.

And I visited the ports of entry – where the vast majority of dangerous illegal drugs, like heroin, enter this country. A wall would do nothing to stop this flow of narcotics at our legal crossings. The officers there need more technology, more manpower, and upgrades to an infrastructure unequipped to address the sheer volume of drugs coming through.

It’s no secret the situation at the border has become a humanitarian crisis. It’s complex, and it can’t be solved by one blunt instrument.

It’s clear to me we need to use every tool in our toolbox, including technology, manpower, or fencing where it makes sense. We need to re-examine our immigration laws, and we need to take a closer look at where the money Congress has appropriated is going, while considering President Trump’s budget that cuts aid to the starving countries these migrants are escaping by the tens of thousands.

It’s no secret Washington is full of folks pontificating about immigration policy. But it’s by talking to the folks who understand it best that we can do the hard job of better securing our borders in an effective, cost-efficient, and humane way.

Jon Tester, a Democrat, is Montana’s senior U.S. senator.