By Gilbert Garcia, San Antonio Express News
This year — with turmoil raging in Iraq, Ukraine, and Gaza — would appear to be an exception to that rule.
A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll suggested that Americans are uneasy about internal tensions. Sixty percent of respondents said they disapprove of President Barack Obama’s handling of foreign affairs, an alarming turn in a category long regarded as a political positive for him.
In this state’s lone up-for-grabs congressional district, however, the focus is closer to home. District 23 Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, and his Republican challenger, former CIA case officer Will Hurd, say voters in the district are primarily talking about jobs and economic growth.
That would make this race an echo of 2012, when Gallego took the seat away from freshman Republican Francisco “Quico” Canseco. (Two years earlier, Canseco unseated Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, largely by tapping into tea party anger over the passage of the Affordable Care Act.)
Unlike 2012, however, the 2014 campaign has been altered by an overwhelming influx of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America along the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s a humanitarian crisis that has shaken many immigration assumptions, even as both major parties remain entrenched in their priorities (Democrats: comprehensive immigration reform; Republicans: border security, above all else).
The issue is inescapable for District 23, which runs west from San Antonio to El Paso, and spans 800 miles of border territory. What is surprising, however, is that Gallego and Hurd strike many of the same notes on immigration. Their differences tend to be in tone and emphasis.
For example, both of them talk about the need to make legal immigration easier.
“We have been benefiting from the brain drain of every other country for the last couple of decades,” said Hurd, a John Marshall High School graduate. “Let’s continue that, and also let’s benefit from the hard-working drain.
“If you’re going to be a productive member of society, let’s get you here. If you want to work in our growing energy sector, and we don’t have enough people for those jobs, then let’s be able to bring those kinds of folks in, legally and quickly.”
Gallego agreed with Hurd’s point, but not before saying, with a laugh: “I’m not sure he’s told his fellow members of the tea party that.”
The West Texas representative, whose family operated a restaurant in Alpine for 80 years, added, “We can build a system that expands and contracts with market conditions. This is a great time to go into the Eagle Ford Shale country and open a restaurant.
“But the challenge is that to open a restaurant you need a cook and a dishwasher and a waiter and a cashier. There is an incredible labor shortage, and this idea that everybody who comes here to work is somehow aligned with a terrorist organization is really damaging our economy.”
Both candidates welcome Mexico’s decision to open up oil-and-gas exploration to foreign energy companies, and say it could reduce the economic pressures that drive people from Mexico and Central America to the U.S. border.
On the issue of the recent Central American influx, Gallego and Hurd share the view that the rule of law must be paramount.
“The law is hard, but it’s still the law,” Gallego said. “If you’re coming here and looking for the American dream — which I understand, respect and even to some extent admire — there’s a right way to do that. You have to go home and apply and put yourself in line like everybody else.”
Hurd’s tone is somewhat tougher, even if his message is basically the same.
“We need to increase our ability to get people out,” Hurd said. “We need more immigration lawyers hearing some of these cases that we can send people back.
“When we put them on a plane to somewhere like Guatemala City, we need to make sure that the local press there is saying, ‘Don’t waste your life savings or endanger your children by putting them on this track, because they’re going to get sent back.’”
Gallego wouldn’t put it in those words. But he also wouldn’t disagree with the position.