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Congressional Exchange Program Visits the Texas Border and Uvalde

Clichés exist for a reason, and the classic “everything’s bigger in Texas” certainly holds true for the state’s goliath 23rd Congressional District, represented by Republican Tony Gonzales.

Democratic Representative Darren Soto experienced this firsthand as he traversed many miles of southwest Texas, even as the asphalt under his wheels only connected a small portion of what is the second largest congressional district that is not an entire state (e.g., Wyoming, South Dakota, and a handful of others). Rep. Soto was in the Lone Star State returning the favor for Rep. Gonzales’s visit to Rep. Soto’s central Florida district in April, organized under BPC’s American Congressional Exchange program.

Beginning in San Antonio, the famous River Walk and historic metropolitan area quickly gave way to rolling hills with dry scrubby landscapes, and towns and ranches that are few and far between. Rep. Soto had the opportunity to see how these Texans live in these rugged conditions, in contrast to the more tightly concentrated urban and suburban areas near Orlando that form most of his district.

And yet, the trip underscored common experiences and interests. Rep. Soto also represents Florida agricultural lands, including cattle farms. In Texas, he had the opportunity to visit a ranch where farmers shared concerns that echo those in Florida, particularly with respect to an adequate workforce.

He and Rep. Gonzales heard about issues with agricultural work visas (so-called H-2A’s) that unquestionably impact both red and blue districts and states. The ranchers also emphasized the importance of enforcement and reduced bureaucracy for legal, work-related immigration. In a related vein, both members toured the U.S.-Mexico border crossing at the Rio Grande River in Del Rio, TX, hosted by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

In the immigration arena, specifics differ between central Florida and southern Texas, but both members share an interest in providing opportunities for migrants to contribute to America’s economic success while ensuring our nation’s security. On that note, Reps. Soto and Gonzales had a chance to witness Laughlin Air Force Base’s invaluable contributions to pilot training while also experiencing a ceremony commemorating a change of command at this important facility.

The day’s capstone was a solemn and profoundly moving stop in Uvalde. The visit’s policy focus was on community recovery and the urgent need for behavioral health resources in the town and beyond. A spectrum of local officials convened for an open and frank conversation on the path toward healing, and specifically the necessity for nearby physical facilities that can meet the mental health needs of the region. At the meeting’s conclusion, both members announced they would lead a bipartisan letter to the Biden administration urging the timely dissemination of mental health grants to Uvalde and other communities around the nation.

The most important moments, however, came when both members of Congress paid their respects to the children who lost their lives and the families that were forever changed. They passed by Robb Elementary School, where an astonishing cascade of flowers, stuffed animals, and notes memorializing the lives lost literally cover the entire front of the school. In the town square, the two stopped at a more formal but equally powerful memorial to lay wreaths in honor of those lives so horrifically and senselessly cut short.

It is in moments like these that we find our common humanity and commitment to something greater than ourselves or our individual beliefs. At BPC, as we work toward common ground for the common good, we don’t expect (or want) our leaders to check their ideologies or party affiliations at the door. But we hope the shared experiences formed on ACE trips can lead to better understanding, foster more constructive dialogue, and encourage lawmakers to cross that threshold together.

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