Up Against the Wall
Congressman Filemon Vela had always kept a low profile—until he told Donald Trump to stick his border fence you-know-where.
Before June 6, South Texas congressman Filemon Vela was known in Washington as a hardworking, unshowy backbencher, and in the Rio Grande Valley as the scion of a powerful political family. (His father was a federal judge, his mother the first female mayor of Brownsville.) Then came his open letter to Donald Trump, an evisceration of the Republican presidential nominee’s stances on immigration, the border wall, and the fitness of Judge Gonzalo Curiel. But what made the 53-year-old Vela, who is running for his third term, a topic of conversation wasn’t the persuasiveness of his arguments but the unexpected profanity of his closing line. “Mr. Trump, you’re a racist,” Vela wrote, “and you can take your border wall and shove it up your ass.”
Eric Benson: When you Google your name, the first couple pages are full of pretty much the same headline: “Texas Democrat to Trump: Take Your Border Wall and Shove It Up Your Ass.” You don’t have a reputation for being a grandstanding politician—
Filemon Vela: No, I enjoy doing my work and being obscure about it.
EB: So why the letter?
FV: You have to put it in the context of history and consider the fact that there are 55 million Americans of Hispanic descent, 35 million of whom are of Mexican descent, and many of them have stories like mine. I’m a fifth-generation Texan. My great-great-grandfather crossed over from Reynosa to what’s now the McAllen/Edinburg area in the 1850s, and his descendants have served in virtually every major American conflict. So as I watched Donald Trump rage that the people coming from Mexico were rapists and drug addicts and cartel members, I became silently enraged as well.
EB: Was there a particular moment that set you off?
FV: It was when he went after Judge Curiel. Here’s a guy who is a first-generation American, made his way through law school, served as a prosecutor, and was very well-known for prosecuting the cartels. Then he becomes a federal judge and Trump calls him a Mexican.
EB: How did you go about writing the letter? The language seems almost off-the-cuff.
FV: I knew what I wanted to tell him, but I knew I had to back it up with good reason. Usually, I fly back to Washington, but my wife and I decided to drive up in June. This job can get really busy, you don’t really have time to sit down and write stuff or read stuff other than what we’re going to work on that week. But that three-day drive really gave me time to reflect. By the time I got to Washington, I’d already written the letter and I’d decided I was going to send it the way it was. I gave some friends and staffers a sneak peek, and they said, “God, you can’t do that.” And I said, “Well, I’m going to do it.”
EB: What was the immediate reaction to the letter?
FV: The day I published it, the office phones were ringing off the hook. It was the start of the session, so we had a new set of summer interns waiting for us. I hadn’t met them yet, and they were already getting pretty nasty calls—there were death threats.
EB: What did your colleagues in Congress think?
FV: By and large, the response we got was positive. I had Republican members come up to me and chuckle about it. A Republican buddy of mine, every time I see him, he says, “How’s that wall doing?” A lot of South Texas Republicans felt the same way that I did.
EB: No one came up to you and said, “Have you no decency, sir?”
FV: Along the way I’ve sensed that the language might have been a bit too much for some friends of my mother. But they’re forgiving, right?
EB: Four months later, would you have done anything differently?
FV: No. I wish I had done it now. Because I think that the Democratic national campaign has let the issues lie. The Hispanic vote is critical in this November election, and I think we need to start talking about that again. Donald Trump never apologized for what he said, and he won’t.
EB: Do you think Trump’s rhetoric has led Americans to view the border as a dangerous, lawless place?
FV: Trump hasn’t helped the matter, but I think if you look at the perception of the border around the country, it’s based on what people have been reading for years. Texans understand it a little bit better. A lot of Texans, whether they’re from near the border or not, have visited the border, so they get the interaction between communities. But if you live in Minnesota or New Hampshire or Washington State or Indiana—
EB: How can you change that perception?
FV: I’ve had six members of Congress and one senator down in the Valley in the last month, and when you bring people down, they see the trade, they enjoy the culture, they see the new university, they go to South Padre Island. We take them to the international bridges, and they see all this truck traffic, and they start to realize that most of the produce that ends up in East Coast grocery shelves comes from Mexico. It begins to change that perception. And then you start explaining to them that FBI statistics show that the border cities are among the safest in Texas.
EB: Let me play devil’s advocate. On the one hand, I’ve heard you talk about how safe the border is. On the other, I’ve seen videos of you in Congress reading State Department warnings describing gun battles, kidnappings, and bombings taking place just across the river. Why isn’t Trump right? If Tamaulipas is basically a war zone, why shouldn’t Americans want a giant wall to protect them?
FV: There’s no easy answer, but when you consider that Mexico is our ally and that they’re our third-largest trading partner, our second-largest export outlet, it just doesn’t make any sense to me to put a wall up.
On the issue of violence, the statistics show that if you come to the Rio Grande Valley, you’re in one of the safest regions of Texas. But when I was growing up in Brownsville, going to eat and drink in Matamoros was just something we did every day. My parents were both born in Harlingen, but my mother was sent to Catholic school in Matamoros because she had an uncle who was a priest in that parish. He’s buried there, and we used to go every weekend to pay our respects. The fact that we can’t do that is—I don’t know how it got to this point. What’s going on in Tamaulipas, I have no choice but to address it for what it is.
EB: When was the last time you went to Tamaulipas?
FV: It was before my dad died, in 2004. He was a federal judge, and he was so involved with drug cases. There was a point when they told him he needed to stop going across. So it may have been twelve or fourteen years. I can’t remember the last time.
EB: What would it take for you to feel comfortable going back?
FV: One of the reasons I’ve been so outspoken about it is because I have sensed that we’re not doing anything about it. But I also feel like history shows that if we do something about it we can make things a lot better and get back to how we were. Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez are cases in point. Before 2010, things in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez were a lot worse than they are in Tamaulipas right now. But we had state and local governments on the Mexican side and community organizations and people on both sides making things better to the point where people are repatriating from El Paso back to Ciudad Juárez.
EB: What’s the role of the U.S. government in helping make that happen?
FV: I really think it’s a matter of more-aggressive diplomacy, and I’m hopeful that whoever wins the presidency, hopefully Clinton, but whoever wins the presidency will have a more robust effort with diplomatic relations in Mexico and Central America. I mean, think about it. When you read about John Kerry, where is he usually?
EB: The Middle East.
FV: Yeah, or Europe.
EB: So you haven’t gotten a lot of face time with Secretary Kerry?
FV: No. Look, I think we need to focus on those places too but I think we need to refocus our diplomatic efforts on the North American continent. Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Central America, we need to have a much more aggressive approach to solving the issues that we’re confronted with. We’re one continent. We’re tied at the hip, right?
EB: Texas’s approach to securing the border has been a law enforcement surge. DPS is current requesting a billion dollars in its budget for border security. Is that a good thing?
FV: Increased law enforcement doesn’t really bother me that much. But you’re sending all these resources to towns along the border that have one third of the violent crime rates that towns and other parts of the state do.
EB: But what about the costs for residents? As I was preparing for this interview, I came across a New York Times article from 2000 in which your father complained about being stopped repeatedly by law enforcement for no reason. And there’s an old joke in the Valley, “Why were you stopped?” “Driving while Mexican.” The border has only gotten more militarized since your father’s day. Do you worry about that?
FV: Well, yeah. Every once in a while, we have reports of people who feel like they were profiled, but we don’t hear about it that often. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I just don’t hear about it that often. I remember when they announced the surge. I know they were patrolling a lot of county roads and we were getting a lot of complaints about that. I don’t know if they still are and people just got used to it, but we just don’t hear about it as much.
EB: How do you see President Obama’s legacy on immigration? Are his policies making the border more porous, as Governor Abbott argues, or is he the “deporter in chief,” as some immigrant activists have alleged?
FV: It’s a mixed bag. I agree with the president’s orders on DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive act that exempts some undocumented immigrants from deportation]. And I think, with respect to the allegation that he’s the deporter in chief, the administration’s hands are tied. They have laws they have to deal with.
EB: What’s the biggest mistake his administration has made on those issues?
FV: Not passing immigration reform in 2009 when they controlled both the House and the Senate. They had an opportunity, and they pursued the Affordable Care Act and cap-and-trade instead. Then after the 2010 sweep, passing immigration reform just became more and more difficult. You know there’s some underlying procedural obstacles in Congress on this issue and many others. They call it the Hastert rule, which is that the bill doesn’t come to the floor unless the majority of the majority agrees to it. I just think that kills compromise in Congress. There are Republican members of Congress who support immigration reform, but from a practical standpoint, as long as Republican control the House or Senate, as long as the Steve Kings of the world [King is a hard-line conservative congressman from Iowa] have influence on the Republican side of the equation, and as long as we have procedural rules like the Hastert rule, it’s going to be very difficult to see it happen.
EB: What has it been like the past four years being in the minority in Congress? Democrats aren’t getting a whole lot of bills through.
FV: It’s terrible! We were looking at a bunch of bills that were going to be considered on the House floor next Monday, and all of them were from Republicans, because they’re in the majority. It’s just frustrating.
EB: Were you surprised by the amount of partisan gridlock when you got to Congress in 2013?
FV: No. We all read about it, right? It’s the way it is, so you don’t lose too much sleep over it. You just have to keep working. This job, what we do is about much more than what you and I have talked about. I tend to focus my time and my staff’s time on places where we can actually accomplish something. For example, back in the district, I have eight staffers. In a given week, we’ll open up twenty to thirty new files—veterans, people who need immigration help, or IRS help, and there’s a lot of work and effort in every congressional office that goes toward helping constituents.
I’ll tell you, to the extent that you want to talk about turning Texas blue, when we saw the Trump-Clinton clash coming, I really felt like we had a chance for Hillary Clinton to win Texas, or if not, to come real close. We had an opportunity to show that there was a future for Democrats in Texas—
EB: You’re saying “had,” past tense, not “have,” present tense. Why?
FV: Because they decided to spend money in battleground states. They decided to leave us hanging.
I tried to talk to them, but it fell on deaf ears.
EB: There’s been a debate among Texas Democrats about whether “turning Texas blue” is primarily about laying the groundwork for a grassroots movement or finding a candidate for governor who can energize support. What do you think?
FV: I think it’s both. To me, the right candidate is somebody who can motivate the minority vote, connect with rural Texans, and be moderate enough so that independent and Republican suburbanites would vote for a Democrat. There are Democratic colleagues who fit this bill, and once we find them, we’ll convince them to go make the run.
EB: Do you fit the bill?
FV: I might fit it, but I like where I’m at right now. I’m going to take it two years at a time.
EB: You talked about immigration reform and the fact that it’s probably not going to happen for the foreseeable future. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, do you see any path open for that to happen?
FV: Well, hope springs eternal, right? I don’t know. I respect the job President Obama has done during his eight years. He’s handled the presidency really well, and I think he’s been a good role model. But having served in Congress with people who served with presidents before him, he has not been as engaged with Congress as President Clinton and, to some extent, President Bush. So I think the biggest hope for immigration reform in a Clinton presidency is going to be her ability to build relationships with the people that she needs to help make it happen. That’s going to be moderate Republicans. But then you have the Hastert rule.
EB: What do you think the border will look like if Trump becomes president? Do you see him building a wall and deporting all 11 million undocumented immigrants?
FV: He’s not going to build a wall. The people in my district will line up on the border. He’ll see a human chain the likes of which he’s never seen. And if you did what Trump is suggesting, which is deport all of them back, that would pretty much shut down the economy. But when Trump first ran, everybody thought, “Hey, he’s a businessman. He’s the kind of guy who’ll do deals,” so maybe if he wins, we’ll see that.
EB: Are you talking yourself into an endorsement?