August 19, 2008

Senator John Cornyn lauds UTEP homeland security center during visit

By Chris Roberts / El Paso Times
Article Launched: 08/19/2008 12:00:00 AM MDT

EL PASO -- U.S. Sen. John Cornyn -- a Texas Republican who was in El Paso Monday for border security briefings and to attend a fundraiser set up by former White House political adviser Karl
Rove -- said a new UTEP homeland security research center will provide ways to balance border protection with the free flow of legal commerce.

Work at the University of Texas at El Paso's Center for Border Security and Immigration will help "find a proper perspective and balance when it comes to legal commerce that crosses the border," Cornyn said during an afternoon news conference at the University of Texas at El Paso. "One of the hardest things in Washington, D.C., believe it or not, is to get good information.

"I want to make sure I get solid information so we can make good judgments," Cornyn said. "It's an area that's not well understood and it's important that we get it right. ... I'm very concerned about long delays (at U.S. customs inspection stations) because this is legal traffic and commerce that benefits the state of Texas."

UTEP President Diana Natalicio and retired Brig. Gen. José Riojas, the university's vice president for strategic initiatives, which includes the border and immigration center, said Cornyn understood the center's role and importance. Riojas said the center can provide objective information unaffected by partisan spin.

"Like everyone else who doesn't live here, he's seeking information and understanding and that's important," Natalicio said.

In briefings by top local officials with the FBI, Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Cornyn said he was told that, to date, drug-cartel violence in Juárez and other border towns had not spilled over into the United States.

"From what I heard, there is no evidence that is happening," said Cornyn, who characterized the violence in Juárez as "unacceptable."

On immigration, Cornyn said he supported the"border-fence" bill in Congress because the U.S. Border Patrol said they needed fencing for strategic locations, but not as a singular solution. Nothing he heard Monday changed his mind, he said. "Perhaps the (UTEP border center) can help us come up with solutions that are more effective," he added.

Texas Democrats assailed Cornyn for allowing Rove, who has been cited for contempt of Congress for not appearing to answer questions about his role in the hiring and firing -- which some have said was politically based -- of Justice Department officials. "Karl Rove is an old friend of mine and he's doing me a favor and I'm proud to have him here," Cornyn said. "He's not a pariah in Texas."

A Monday news release from Rick Noriega, Cornyn's Democratic challenger in the November elections, charged that Cornyn -- who, as Texas attorney general, successfully sued to shut down the Tigua Indian's Speaking Rock Casino -- was connected to a lobbyist scandal that cost the tribe $4.2 million.

Washington, D.C., lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- who in 2006 pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges -- and an associate took the money from the Tiguas for an unsuccessful attempt to lobby lawmakers to reopen the casino. At the same time, Abramoff allegedly hired former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed to rally Christians against gambling in Texas.

One e-mail from Reed to Abramoff in 2002, quoted by Noriega, says Cornyn's response was "choreographed" by the lobbyists. Noriega said the "payoff" was a contribution to Cornyn's campaign.

Cornyn said Abramoff wrote a $1,000 check at a benefit for himself and "several other beneficiaries," and repeated Monday that he never met the lobbyist and that the e-mails were sent "without my knowledge."

"I think they were bragging about things that were not actually true," Cornyn said.

Chris Roberts may be reached at;546-6136.

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