WASHINGTON — Congressman Will Hurd of Texas is an increasingly lonely voice in the “build the wall” Republican Party of Donald Trump. A 41-year-old former undercover CIA officer, Hurd represents one of the largest congressional districts in America, Texas’ 23rd, a vast expanse of land roughly the size of Georgia that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso.
Hurd’s district includes 820 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, more than any other member of the House of Representatives. But if you’re expecting Hurd, who was narrowly re-elected to a third term last year, to support President Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” and stand with the decision to partially shut down the federal government over the fight, you’ve got it all wrong. Trump’s border crisis is a “myth,” Hurd tells Rolling Stone, and a wall made of cement or steel slats is a “third-century solution to a 21st-century problem.”
“What I always say is building a wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security,” Hurd says.
He is one of the few Republicans to break ranks and vote with Democrats to approve funding to reopen the government. On Wednesday, he announced that he’d landed a coveted seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, bringing the perspective of someone who actually knows the border to Congress’ main government-funding committee.
Rolling Stone caught up with Hurd in his office on Capitol Hill to discuss the “wall,” what it’s like to represent nearly half of the entire U.S.-Mexico border and his idea for a modern-day Marshall Plan to address the root causes of the social and economic crisis in Latin America that has led to so many immigrants fleeing north and seeking refuge in the U.S. The conversation follows, lightly edited for length and clarity.
The word that we keep hearing from President Trump is that there’s a “crisis” at the border. Is there a crisis at the border?
If there is a crisis, why are the people that are dealing with it not being paid? That’s the first step.
This is an issue that has transcended multiple administrations. I think $67 billion of drugs coming into our country is a crisis. Now, I also think when you think of a crisis, that means people are afraid to leave their homes, right? El Paso is one of the safest cities in the United States of America. The same can be said about Del Rio, Presidio and Eagle Pass, places I represent.
It’s a problem that should be solved. Yes, last year 400,000 people tried to come into our country illegally, and that’s a decrease in 80 percent from 2000. But 400,000 is still a big number.
When I crisscross my district, the thing I hear the most, people are like, “We need workers.” Whether it’s agriculture or artificial intelligence, we need workers. Why aren’t we also talking about streamlining this immigration process so that we get people here legally who are going to contribute to our economy? It’s a problem that needs to be solved. I think it requires us to be cool, level-headed and talk about those solutions.
What you’ve described sounds like a number of issues that could be solved with different policies. It doesn’t sound like: We’re going to shut down the government and keep it shut down because this crisis is so dire.
No. Again, if you’re dealing with a crisis, you need all hands on deck. Another example, with the Department of Homeland Security. The average large American business deals with 54 million cyber-intrusions a year. The DHS entity that is responsible for coordinating across the federal government and the private sector, they’re at 60-percent staff. Not paying the people and furloughing the people dealing with this problem doesn’t make any sense.
Having personally gone to the border—
Where did you go?
I’ve been to El Paso. I’ve been to Nogales in Arizona. Laredo. Eagle Pass. There’s really no substitute for going, is there? I feel like you shouldn’t be able to talk about the border until you’ve actually gone.
(Laughs) I wish that was a requirement.
Can you describe for someone who has not seen what you’ve seen what the border actually looks like?
Roughly 2,000 miles. The number in Texas is about 1,200, from El Paso to Harlingen. The border is broken up into multiple sectors. I have four sectors just in my district. I represent 820 miles of the border, 29 counties, two time zones. My area is larger than 26 states, roughly the size of Georgia. In some parts of the district, it’s the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America. You can see for dozens of miles in one direction.
Border Patrol’s response time in some areas is measured in hours to days. If your response time is measured in hours to days, then a wall is actually not a physical barrier. But where there’s cities, where there’s urban-to-urban contact, some kind of physical barrier makes sense, because it helps Border Patrol increase their response time because of the amount of time it takes to go over, go under, things like that.
You have urban-to-urban contact, like El Paso and [Ciudad] Juarez. Juarez is, I believe, twice the size of El Paso, and they’re right up next to each other. [Ed note: Ciudad Juarez’s population is 1.3 million and El Paso’s is 684,000.] Then, in some places, I have Big Bend National Park. Santa Elana Canyon is a 6,000-foot cliff, then the Rio Grande River, and then another 6,000-foot cliff on the other side. Guess what? It’s already a physical barrier. Lake Amistad, which is a lake on both sides of the border, has dozens of miles on either side. A wall in a body of water has another name. It’s called a dam.
Then you have the people who have farms that go up against the Rio Grande because the Rio Grande is a source of water for agriculture and ranching. In some areas where there has been a proposal for a wall, in my district alone there’s the potential of ceding 1.1 million acres of land to Mexico. There’s a thing in Texas we care about called private property rights. I think in just Texas alone, it would impact almost 1,000 property holders.
To build this theoretical wall?
To get the property rights with eminent domain. It would impact 1,000 people. Outside of Texas, you have the federal government or the state government as some of the biggest landowners. But what is happening, when you understand the threat from the narcos — if you’re not following some of the Chapo hearings…
I have. We’ve been covering it.
If the narcos are making $67 billion a year — that’s a conservative, with a little “c,” estimate on how much is there — you’re not bringing [drugs] in in backpacks. You’re bringing it in in bulk. The U.S. national intelligence program is $60 billion. The narcos have the resources, they don’t have to worry about government shutdowns, and they’re coming back and forth and being able to deliver their product. That is the issue we’re dealing with.
Border Patrol over time has only endorsed three people in the last couple years. Donald Trump, Martha McSally last cycle for Senate and a guy named Will Hurd. I talk to them because in some areas their cell phones or their push-to-talk radios don’t work. In some places, in order for Border Patrol to see if someone is coming through there, they drag monster tires, really big tires, by car along areas where they know people may go through to later see if footprints are there. Guess what? The bad guys know that you can do things that decrease footprints and cover your tracks.
That seems so old-school, dragging a tire across the desert.
Some of the technology they have is 20 years old. Some of the technology they have is not actually on the border. Some of the technology they have requires a PhD in computer science in order to use.
We do not have operational control of our border. Operational control meaning we know everything that’s going one way or the other. The only way you do that is by looking at all 2,000 miles of border at the same time. The only way you can look at all 2,000 miles of border at the same time is by using technology. The technology exists where you can deploy, whether it’s radar or LiDAR — LiDAR is radar, but with light instead of sound — cameras, infrared. You need a mile-by-mile assessment because each mile is different from the next.
The border is not this homogenous thing. Two thousand miles is a lot. Most people can’t wrap their heads around how big that is. These are vast spaces.
You’re talking about radar. You’re talking about LiDAR. You’re talking about AI. There’s legislation you’ve put forward on this.
Yeah. The SMART Act.
By the way, do you know what the root causes [of illegal immigration] are? Violence and lack of economy opportunities in the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. State Department and USAID are doing programs to work with our allies to address those problems. We’ve seen, in the equivalent of what we would call counties, USAID and State Department activities where you’ve seen a decrease in the violence. Guess what you’ve also seen? You’ve seen a decrease in the people leaving there to come to the United States of America.
We’ve got to address root causes. That takes time. We should be working with Mexico. Mexico deports more Central Americans than we do almost by two-to-one. This is a shared problem, so let’s address the root causes as well on that.
We’re also missing an ambassador or two in the Northern Triangle, right?
We do not have an ambassador to Mexico. That is correct. The Northern Triangle, I do believe in all three places that we have [nominees], but they haven’t gone through the confirmation.
Have you talked to the president about the notion, as you put it, of proposing a third-century solution for a 21st-century problem?
I have talked to many people within the administration about how we solve this problem long-term. That’s why we’ve done legislation. The SMART Wall Act got included in the Homeland bill last year. This is not rocket science. We can solve this problem. We need to be looking at the right metrics. The metric is not measuring the tools that we’re using. The metric is: Are we seeing a decrease in drugs and illegal immigration coming into this country? That’s what we should be focused on, instead of how many miles of wall.
Does it drive you crazy to have a debate about a wall, steel slats, cement, whatever?
Yeah. Look, here’s the thing. In some places, a physical barrier is a helpful tool. But you can’t use the same tool over every single mile. Let’s be efficient. What I always say is building a wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security. The average is $24.5 million a mile.
Wow. That’s a lot of money.
Some think we can get that down to $17.8 (million). A smart wall you can do for under $500,000 a mile.
Yet the government is partially shut down over steel slats and cement.
It is a myth. That’s why we’ll continue to talk about how we solve this problem, operate within the Secure Fence Act, double down on our ports of entry, because that’s where most of the illegal drugs come in, that’s where most people are surrendering. We’ll use technology and address root causes in Mexico with a Marshall Plan for Central America. You do those things, put that together, it’s a big package, but it’s also what is needed in order to make sure our country is safe.
When is this wall fever going to break?
Honestly, if I knew the answer — I wish I knew the answer. I don’t.