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McSally at border in Nogales: 'No opportunity to vote yet' on gov't shutdown

Courts - including those handling immigration cases - about to run out of funding

While two dueling proposals to end the shutdown moved through the Senate on Tuesday morning, newly minted U.S. Sen. Martha McSally met with officers and agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Nogales.

In downtown Nogales with the 18-foot steel bollard fence behind her, McSally said that she met with Border Patrol agents and Customs officers at the Mariposa Port of Entry, and they told her that they were "really struggling" because of the shutdown, which has gone on for 32 days, becoming the longest government shutdown in modern history.  

Morale is good, McSally said, and CBP officials are "focused on their mission, but there are a lot of stressors," she said, adding that supervisors were most worried about "younger officers" who were at the lower end of the pay-scale and "didn't have time to build up savings." 

They're "motivated to come to work, but they can't do this for a long time," the Republican said, adding that she ordered pizzas for the port's staff.

McSally said she has not had an opportunity to cast a vote to end the government shutdown. Mitch McConnell, the GOP Senate majority leader, has blocked legislation that does not include billions of dollars demanded by President Donald Trump for a border wall.

The federal government has been partially shutdown since Dec. 22, affecting about 800,000 federal workers, including CBP personnel who were either furloughed or have been working without pay since the shutdown began.

Not only has this left thousands of workers without paychecks, the shutdown has also resulted in the cancellation of nearly 43,000 immigration hearings, and by this Friday, federal district courts will run out of money. 

During a hearing in Tucson, U.S. District Court Judge Bernardo Velasco said last Wednesday that he needed to extend a lunch break so he could attend a meeting to "figure out what we're going to do when we run out of money." 

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In recent weeks, Trump has used his bully pulpit to hammer at Democrats, blaming them for the shutdown and demanding they pass a budget with nearly $12 billion in additional spending for the Department of Homeland Security, including $5.7 billion slated for his long-promised border wall. 

Democrats have remained unmoved by the president's assertions. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the president was governing by "temper tantrum," and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Trump has "chosen to hold hostage critical services for the health, safety and well-being of the American people."

'Got to get through this'

In Nogales, McSally said that she would look for "common ground" that provides resources for "border security." 

"We've got to get through this," she said. "I'm for funding the government, I'm not for shutting down the government, just to be clear," McSally said. "That's not way for people to work out their differences," she said. 

Last year, Democrats agreed to give the White House $1.2 billion for border barriers, but DHS has yet to build new barriers along the border, though it has announced plans to begin projects in California, Arizona and Texas this February. This includes the bulldozing of land in the National Butterfly Sanctuary along the Rio Grande River, as well as projects to install new barriers near Yuma and Lukeville, Ariz. 

After the government shut down, the White House expanded its funding request to $12 billion, including not only the original $5.7 billion, but $211 million to hire 750 Border Patrol agents, $675 million for screening technology at U.S. ports, $571 million for 200 ICE agents, and $563 million to hire 75 additional immigration judges and associated staff. 

The plan also includes $4.2 billion to expand detention capacity to 52,000 beds, including new detention facilities. 

On Saturday, Trump announced plans for a new "deal" that would trade billions slated for his border wall for a three-year extension of temporary protected status or TPS, and what he called an "extension" of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that the Trump administration attempted to cancel, stymied only by a federal court. 

Following the announcement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pressed forward on the "End the Shutdown and Secure the Border Act," a 1,300-page spending bill that includes Trump's deal. However, that deal has fallen flat with Democrats, who have argued that the new bill includes changes to asylum law that are what Schumer called a "poison pill." 

Avideh Moussavian, legislative director at the National Immigration Law Center, criticized the deal in a statement, calling Trump the "chief architect of what has become the longest shutdown in modern history — which his enablers in Congress have allowed the administration to prolong." 

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"He is also similarly responsible for terminating DACA and TPS and for trampling on the rights of people coming to the U.S. in search of safety," he said. "Instead of reopening the government, he is rehashing nonstarter proposals to once again torpedo every good-faith effort to fix the very harms he created in service of his racist, xenophobic agenda. To blindly trust that this isn’t just another attempt to hurt our immigrant and border communities would be foolish." 

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union called the new bill a "face-saving tactic." 

"This White House has repeatedly shown that it isn't serious and continually backtracks from its own proposals. President Trump's proposed remedies for Dreamers and TPS recipients are far too limited," Romero said. "The President won't be able to buy a 'get out of a shutdown for free' card by offering such tepid fixes to DACA and TPS.  We need federal workers back at work and enduring protections for individuals who have been denied basic liberties for far too long."

McConnell's bill includes the "Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy" or BRIDGE Act, which shifts how DACA works, alters TPS, and requires unaccompanied minors to seek asylum from their home countries. The new bill also includes $70.4 billion for DHS, as well as $30 billion for DOJ, expanding the budgets of each department. 

When asked about the new bill, McSally said, "before I vote on anything, I'm going to look over the legislation." 

"We've got to get 60 votes to move anything forward in the Senate," she said. "This is a new procedural fact of life that I'm now experiencing first hand, and so we've got to get something through the House, the president's proposal was a good first step."

"if it's going to take having a conversation about DACA in order to get some Democrats to vote for it, let's have that conversation," McSally said. "I think that's really what we're saying, if you want to amend the bill, then come up with an amendment. If you don't like some things in the legislation, let's talk about what you want to take out. This is what reasonable people should do, sitting at the table, trying to find a reasonable solution to this issue, that can get through both houses and on the president's desk." 

McSally said that the proposal that's on the table, "includes the technology that caught the package today, at all ports of entry," she said. The proposal also includes more Border Patrol agents, and more CBP officers, and "doing something on DACA." 

"I think these are the types of topics that are in the realm of what a compromise might look like to open up the government,  fund it for the next eight months, invest in border security at the right level, and do it as fast as we possibly can," McSally said. 

"We obviously want this to end, we want the shutdown to end, it's affecting agents, It's affecting more than agents, it's affecting the community, these agents spend money and they put money into local businesses, and right now because of this, it's hard times, and we're really watching what we're spending at this point." said Art Del Cueto, a Tucson Sector agent and vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union for BP agents. 

McSally said that 2006 Secure Fence Act mandated 700 miles of fence, and while 654 miles have been built—including 354 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of primary vehicle fencing—the Trump administration wanted to add another 234 miles of fence. 

"Some of that is additional miles, some of it is replacement, and some of it is secondary," she said. "It's not here," McSally said, gesturing to the bollard wall behind her. Instead, she said that agents on the ground, "sector by sector" have asked for replacement barriers, or pedestrian walls to replace vehicle barriers, or "levee systems" in the Rio Grande Valley. "So every sector is going to be different," she said. 

McSally also reiterated a complaint that Trump has made: that Democrats were once in favor of spending funding on border security. "They were OK with that at the time. That supported, even in our community, replacing barriers with new barriers," McSally said.

'No opportunity to vote yet'

"I've not been given the opportunity to vote on anything yet; I've been in the Senate for two weeks," McSally said, adding the she'd had a "lot of conversations about what is in the realm of the possible."

"And, I'll will look at each piece of legislation and I will work to get us out of this impasse, so that we can get the votes to fund the government and secure the border," she said. 

"Nobody wants a shutdown," said Del Cueto. "But we understand why it's happening, we definitely want to secure our borders, that's something we've been asking for a long time." 

"They need their pay," he said. "It's ridiculous to think we don't want to get paid." Del Cueto said that he reached out to mortgage companies, to help agents, but was told that by the banks that "'We don't have anything to offer right now.'" 

"It's a big issue, but border security is a big issue for us now, too," Del Cueto said.  

McSally will visit Yuma on Wednesday and meet with Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot, who will lead the senator on a tour of an area where 376 people entered the United States by crawling beneath the steel fence about 10 miles east of San Luis, Ariz. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Sen. Martha McSally speaks with reporters at the U.S.-Mexico border in downtown Nogales Tuesday afternoon.

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