A Tale of Two Congressional Visits to the Southwest Border
Updated 5:30 p.m. | House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., touted his delegation’s fact-finding trip to the Texas border last week as bipartisan, but lawmakers from both parties arrived back in Washington Tuesday as divided on immigration as ever.
According to Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Democrats and Republicans went their separate ways on least three of the delegation’s stops along the border, where local, state and federal officials are struggling to deal with a surge of immigrant minors — many of them unaccompanied — attempting to enter the country illegally.
“I honestly think they were looking for an opportunity to confirm . . . without any data, that somehow this is Obama’s fault,” Lofgren said of the Republicans on the trip.
Lofgren’s comments to CQ Roll Call on Monday came several days after Goodlatte told reporters he saw “some aspects we can work with on a bipartisan basis,” but acknowledged that Democrats ultimately “view this issue differently than we do.”
Lofgren said she and the other Democrats from the Judiciary Committee delegation — Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Joe Garcia of Florida — invited Goodlatte and the participating Republicans — Darrell Issa of California and Blake Farenthold of Texas — to three meetings that she said would have given them more information to bring back to Washington, D.C.
Goodlatte and Issa — the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee — declined, with Farenthold agreeing to tag along on a visit to a refugee assistance program being facilitated by Catholic volunteers.
Goodlatte spokeswoman Jessica Collins told CQ Roll Call the differences in itineraries were not intended as slights: “The trip was scheduled for partial days on both Wednesday and Thursday in order to accommodate members traveling from different parts of the country. Both Democrats and Republicans added additional visits to the trip for Wednesday. Democrats who arrived early on Wednesday morning made their own arrangements for visits.”
The wide gap in perspectives on the cause and effect of the border surge may not have been bridged by a more collaborative trip to Texas last week, given how political the debate has become. Ultimately, Democrats want to help the president address the crisis, while Republicans are inclined to blame him for its escalation.
That continues to be the case on Capitol Hill this week, as lawmakers confront whether to greenlight President Barack Obama’s $3.8 billion request to bolster border resources and alleviate some of the chaos there.
House Democrats — Lofgren among them — might have chafed at the proposal had Obama included a provision giving Homeland Security officials more discretion to deport immigrant children apprehended at the border, but absent that language, they stand ready to assist.
“My basic response is, this is a reasonable request and the House of Representatives, the United States Senate, will respond positively to it,” Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday. “I hope that’s the case.”
House Republicans are more noncommittal. Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky said his committee would “take a close and thorough look.”
Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, whom Speaker John A. Boehner has appointed to lead a GOP “working group” to advise leadership on the border crisis, said the task force will meet Wednesday to discuss the larger issues surrounding the president’s proposal, with a goal of updating the whole conference next week.
Boehner, through a spokesman, suggested he was peeved that Obama’s funding request did not authorize the National Guard to “provide humanitarian support in affected areas.”
And other Republicans don’t want to do anything at all. Goodlatte put out a statement saying the crisis remains Obama’s to fix.
“President Obama created this disaster at our southern border and now he is asking to use billions of taxpayer dollars without accountability or a plan in place to actually stop the border crisis,” he said.
Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and Goodlatte’s predecessor at the helm of the Judiciary Committee, was more blunt: “Congress shouldn’t give President Obama a single penny until we see him use the current resources to secure the border, increase interior enforcement, and reduce illegal immigration.”
Goodlatte and Issa implied their findings at the border would bolster the GOP response in Congress regarding the child migrant border surge.
During a conference call with a small group of reporters on July 3, the two lawmakers said they were fully confident that Obama used executive orders to render immigration laws so lax that children in Central America believe that once they enter the United States, they will automatically qualify for legalization proceedings.
Their suspicions were confirmed during a ride-along with border patrol agents near the Rio Grande River, where they witnessed individuals being taken into custody and then had a chance to interact with them.
“Their stories are basically, ‘I wanted to come to the United States, I wanted to be reunited with a family member in the United States and I’ve been told that if I come, they’ll let me in,’” Goodlatte said.
Lofgren had a different takeaway from her border visit. While she acknowledged that smugglers “have engaged in misleading efforts” to convince children to sneak across the border, she was certain there were more factors at stake.
“Here’s the thing,” she said. “OK, the smugglers are giving this pitch, but even if you can believe that was true, what would it take to give your 8-year-old to some smuggler to go off for a thousand miles? You don’t do that just because you’re going to get permission [to stay in the U.S.] You’re doing it because things have deteriorated to the point where it actually seems it’s smarter to get your kid out of there than to face the warlords who are threatening her life.”
Lofgren cited one briefing that she said would have been particularly enlightening for her absent Republican counterparts: a meeting with volunteer lawyers who said more than half the children who enter the country illegally across the Southwest border are found eligible for asylum as the victims of human trafficking, abandonment or abuse.
But even that statistic runs counter to one being touted by Republicans. According to a release from Goodlatte, a “key finding” from the border trip last week was that “many of these minors and families are able to game the asylum process since most applications are rubberstamped for approval.”
The same release cites an internal DHS memo stating “there is proven or possible fraud in up to 70% of asylum applications.”
Lofgren also described a visit to the Brownsville holding center where she saw children “sleeping on the cement with little tin foil blankets,” and a 3-year-old toddler traveling alone whose only word appeared to be “Miami.”
What she witnessed, she said, reinforced her position that Congress must, at minimum, address the overcrowding at detention facilities and improve conditions for children being held there. “We do need the resources to deal with these kids and I hope we’ll have a bipartisan effort to deal with that,” she said.
Goodlatte reiterated Tuesday that Congress shouldn’t act when the president could with his own resources.
“Republicans are committed to solving this problem, including seeking changes to current law,” he said. “However, no amount of resources or changes will be effective in stemming the surge of illegal border crossings if President Obama continues to ignore the law.”