Border Democrats Walk Tightrope Between Wall, Constituent Jobs

  • Border states benefiting from higher immigration spending
  • Still, Dems oppose spending on border wall, want oversight

Democratic lawmakers from U.S. border states are having to learn how to balance their opposition to President Trump’s proposed border wall with the boost in federal contract spending many of their districts have seen, thanks to tougher immigration enforcement.

The contract boom is benefiting companies like technology provider Dell Technologies Inc. and private prison operator CoreCivic Inc., which saw, respectively, a nearly 340 percent increase and 48 percent increase in their contract spending in border states between 2015 and 2018. Other industries specializing in transportation, construction and software also saw a boost from federal spending.

The partial government shutdown has only highlighted the tension between opposition to the wall and local concerns. “Those of us who live it, we do get pressure,” Arizona Democrat Rep. Raul Grijalva said in an interview.

“I think it puts them in a predicament, because it’s an employee base, and in many of our districts unemployment is an issue, a big issue,” Grijalva added, referring to fellow Democratic border-state lawmakers.

The federal government increased its contract spending more than 50 percent for immigration processing and enforcement-related operations in those states from fiscal year 2015 to 2018, a Bloomberg Government data analysis shows. That means more money flowing as salaries and revenue for constituents and businesses in districts along the Southwest border that just went more Democratic, and less supportive of stricter immigration policies, in the 2018 midterms.

Congress returned for its first full week of the new session with a more Democratic group of border district representatives than in President Donald Trump’s first two years in office. In a contentious midterm election where Republicans and Trump touted increased immigration enforcement as a top issue, voters in border states often rejected that view. Democrats now control eight of the nine House districts neighboring Mexico, and five of the eight Senate seats in the four states.

Balancing Act

Grijalva and others border state lawmakers, including those in districts where party control flipped, like Reps. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), find themselves in a balancing act as their party enters the majority for the first time in eight years.

Kirkpatrick, for example, has said she does not support a wall but does support more resources for border patrol agents. Small has also said a wall wouldn’t secure the southern border. Both women won despite being in areas that overwhelmingly voted in 2016 for Trump.

“We don’t support the wall – but we do support opening our government to pay our federal workers, and we support immigration reform so our border agents can focus on criminal activity, not asylum casework,” Kirkpatrick said in a statement.

Bloomberg Government’s data analysis included contract spending from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Administration for Children and Families. It does not include federal grants given by the Department of Health and Human Services to detain unaccompanied minors.

Spending Splits

Several unions representing those agencies’ workers have voiced strong opposition to the partial government shutdown stemming from the fight between Trump and Congress over border security spending.

Still, some immigration enforcement employees have supported the shutdown and Trump’s call for more than $5 billion for wall funding.

“We have skin in the game,” Art Del Cueto, a vice president of the National Border Patrol Council union, said at a Jan. 3 briefing at the White House.

Photo – Luis Antonio Rojas/Bloomberg
Some lawmakers opposing a border wall have seen their districts benefit from higher immigration-enforcement spending.

To Be Continued

Funding fights for border security are all but guaranteed to continue through this Congress. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said she’s concerned about the increase in contract funding for immigration enforcement.

“It’s becoming a huge business.” Roybal-Allard said in an interview “There’s going to be oversight.”

Still, Roybal-Allard said the contract spending scrutiny didn’t necessarily mean job cuts, and she called for the hiring of thousands more border agents.

To contact the reporters on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at; Paul Murphy in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at; Jonathan Nicholson at