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Juan Vargas wants more border agents, corporate ESG disclosure

Keeping corporations accountable for climate action, passing the federal budget and funding local infrastructure projects are top priorities for Rep. Juan Vargas in the coming year.

The South Bay Democrat returned to Congress this month for a sixth term, this time representing the redrawn 52nd Congressional District, which includes Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, National City and parts of the city of San Diego. He spoke to The San Diego Union-Tribune about his plans for this year and accomplishments last year as part of a series of interviews with San Diego members of Congress.

With the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives under Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Vargas said he anticipates a chaotic legislative session in which Democrats will struggle to advance legislation in the face of opposition from the furthest-right Republicans.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to accomplish much,” he said. “I think the tail is now wagging the dog. There’s a very small number of people in their caucus who seem to control things.”

His biggest concern, he said, are conflicts over federal spending and the debt ceiling.

“My priority at the end of the day is to make sure the government is funded, particularly the military,” Vargas said, adding that he would “work with whoever we can to make sure they don’t crash the economy.”

A man in sunglasses and suit speaks at a podium beneath a blue sky and transmission lines, with daisies in the foreground.

Rep. Juan Vargas speaks to U.S. and Mexican officials at an event celebrating the completion of the southbound State Route 125 to westbound State Route 905 on July 26, 2022, in Otay Mesa — a connector expected to improve mobility throughout the region.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Despite his doubts about prospects for bipartisan legislation, Vargas said he will work on environmental protection, border security and other areas he hopes will garner Republican support. For instance, he wants to add patrol agents at border crossings to reduce wait times and improve border security. He’s proposing funding to increase staffing at both the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border crossings.

“The lines are too big,” said Vargas, whose district includes both crossings “There’s a huge economic impact on my district when you have to wait hours to cross the border, and it’s an environmental disaster. We need more agents to inspect vehicles and interdict drugs.”

He also aims to reintroduce legislation to provide a path to legal residency for undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as minors. Vargas was one of 175 members who co-sponsored the legislation in the House, which it passed in 2021 before stalling in the Senate.

Vargas also plans to reintroduce a bill he proposed last session that would require publicly traded companies to report on their carbon footprints and other social and environmental impacts of their operations.

That bill called for standards requiring companies to disclose their business activities’ “environmental, social, and governance performance metrics” — including climate risks, greenhouse gas emissions, political expenditures, executive and employee compensation, labor practices and other factors.

While some companies voluntarily disclose that information, Vargas said they’re often at a competitive disadvantage compared to those who don’t.

“Corporations should have a method by which they tell us what is their impact on the world, but especially on the environment,” Vargas said. “I’m going to keep introducing this until it becomes law.”

A major advance for Vargas’ office last year was the appropriation of $300 million to the International Boundary and Water Commission to clean up cross-border pollution that contaminates South Bay beaches.

That money was originally assigned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2019, but the projects were on hold until lawmakers could transfer it to the commission. In July, Vargas and Rep. Sara Jacobs introduced legislative language to authorize the transfer and allow the money to be used toward wastewater treatment projects to improve cross-border water quality.

“That’s not enough to fix the problem, but it’s a huge part,” Vargas said.

He also cited $35 million in federal funding for local infrastructure improvements, including the Bayshore Bikeway in Barrio Logan, a beach and boat launch at Harbor Park, a bridge replacement project and other parks improvements, road projects and other public works in his district.

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