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Immigration looms large in governor’s race

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – If anyone wondered whether the immigration debate raging in Congress would be an issue in the New Mexico governor’s race this year, a fundraising email from the campaign of Republican Rep. Steve Pearce on Friday morning erased all doubt.

Rep. Steve Pearce

Rep. Steve Pearce

“Did you see my opponent on CNN?” the message said, urging recipients to watch a video clip of an interview with Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Pearce’s Democratic challenger in the New Mexico gubernatorial contest. “It exposes Michelle Lujan Grisham’s total unwillingness to compromise in order to secure our border and fix our broken immigration system.”

The fundraising pitch went on to accuse Lujan Grisham of “grandstanding” instead of trying to “fix things.”

In a Journal interview Friday, Lujan Grisham, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, fired back, fiercely disputing the accusation.

Michelle Lujan Grisham

Michelle Lujan Grisham

“It’s not grandstanding to visit the border and personally view the individuals who are being harmed by these policies,” she said, referring to migrant children she visited in San Diego last week who had been separated from their parents by U.S. border agents as the families tried to enter the U.S. from Mexico illegally.

“Separating kids and families … is an outrageous position for this country, and my colleague just voted for a bill that furthers that effort,” she said of Pearce’s support of a Republican immigration bill that was rejected Thursday by the House.

The campaign drama playing out between New Mexico’s Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates reflects the high political stakes attached to immigration reform, especially over the last week as President Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border exploded into the national consciousness.

Bowing to intense public pressure, Trump rescinded the policy on Wednesday, vowing that families trying to cross the border illegally would still be detained but not separated.

While immigration policy is largely the domain of the federal government – and generally not the responsibility of states and governors – such federal policy looms large in border states like New Mexico.

In recent days, Lujan Grisham has assumed an increasingly high-profile and vocal role in the national debate, using her powerful perch as the Hispanic caucus chair to voice outrage about the controversial immigration policy in national television interviews and in news conferences at the U.S. Capitol.

She was among protesters chanting opposition to the family separation policy outside the White House on Monday and is planning to join a rally in Tornillo, Texas, near the Mexico border today.

The Tornillo holding facility houses male teenagers who illegally crossed the border unaccompanied by an adult. New Mexico’s Democratic senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, spoke outside the facility Friday.

Rep. Steve Pearce, right, speaks to a crowd at a press conference April 18, 2017, in Albuquerque. A Pearce fundraising email attacked his rival for governor for her stance on immigration

Rep. Steve Pearce, right, speaks to a crowd at a press conference April 18, 2017, in Albuquerque. A Pearce fundraising email attacked his rival for governor for her stance on immigration. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Pearce, in an interview with the Journal, said he opposed separating families at the border and understood why Trump relented under the withering public pressure, but he stopped short of calling the policy “a mistake.”

In contrast with Lujan Grisham, the conservative Pearce – who represents New Mexico’s border with Mexico – has maintained a low-key position in the immigration fracas as he aims to moderate his image in a statewide race in which Democratic voters outnumber Republicans.

However, the congressman’s fundraising email Friday showed he is also not averse to using the wedge issue to curry favor with supporters.

Opposing votes

In the broader immigration debate, Lujan Grisham on Thursday voted against the Republican immigration bill that was defeated with unanimous opposition from Democrats, as well as 41 Republicans. Pearce voted for the legislation.

A vote on a more moderate bill aimed at uniting conservative and moderate House Republicans is set for next week. Lujan Grisham said she plans to vote against that bill, as well, while Pearce’s office said he wants to see the final version before deciding if he will support it.

Meanwhile, Trump on Thursday told House Republicans in a tweet “to stop wasting their time” trying to pass immigration legislation that is unlikely to have enough votes to pass in the narrowly divided Senate.

In a Journal interview Thursday, Pearce noted that he introduced legislation last year to address the issue of so-called “Dreamers,” children who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents and whose immigration status remains in limbo. Pearce’s bill – a version of which was included in the House GOP legislation that failed Wednesday – would allow these young immigrants to apply for a 10-year period of amnesty from deportation with the ability to renew each decade as they await legal citizenship through existing channels.

“Anyone can stand out there and grandstand and go out in front of the cameras every time they turn on – that’s easy,” Pearce said of his opponent. “Cranking out solutions is the hard part, and I’ve been very engaged in that since I put my bill in last year.”

Lujan Grisham disagreed, saying she has been pushing for a “permanent” solution that includes an expedited path to citizenship for the Dreamers. She opposes Pearce’s proposal, saying it still punishes law-abiding Dreamers whose only crime was being brought to America by their parents . She said it won’t give these young people lasting peace of mind that citizenship conveys.

“It doesn’t create a permanent solution for Dreamers,” she said. “It basically says we’ll leave you in limbo and allow you to have guest worker protections, and still a fairly high bar but never a pathway to citizenship.”

As of late last week, the bill set for a vote this week included a path to citizenship for Dreamers that would also allow these young people to apply for citizenship for their parents. But it also included about $24 billion for Trump’s border wall, scrapped a diversity lottery program and limited family-based immigration.

Pearce said Lujan Grisham’s opposition to that bill – at least in the form it took late last week – amounts to “obstruction.”

He also suggested that most New Mexicans would oppose allowing Dreamers to jump to the front of the citizenship line.

“We’re going to give special privilege to a subgroup of people who have not followed the law, and we’re going to give them priority over people who have?” Pearce said. “Where is the fairness in that particular approach? Where is the fairness? I think that will be a very clear defining factor.”

Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham criticized Republican proposals like the one the House is expected to consider next week to spend billions for a border wall. She also said the bill would require employers to screen workers for legal status using a federal database that would put undue financial hardship on employers, including many in New Mexico. She called those measures “draconian.”

“I don’t want to keep litigating what we do with 11 million (undocumented) people,” Lujan Grisham said, “but these draconian responses are not a legitimate response.”

Was Pearce MIA?

Lujan Grisham insisted Pearce hasn’t worked with Democrats to find long-term solutions to the nation’s immigration challenges.

“I didn’t see Pearce at any of the negotiations over more than six months where we had 50 Republicans on the (Democratic sponsored) USA Act,” to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, Lujan Grisham added. “We’ve been negotiating border security and border protections for months and I didn’t see Pearce at any of those meetings.”

The USA Act gives Dreamers a chance to become legal permanent residents, but it does not create a special pathway to becoming citizens. To qualify, they must have been in the U.S. since at least 2013 and have entered the country before they turned 18. They must also meet education requirements and have no record of serious crimes.

The measure also orders the Department of Homeland Security to install the best technology to secure the border with Mexico, but it does not explicitly authorize construction of a wall. It creates federal grants for law enforcement agencies along the borders, including improved communications, and increases the number of immigration judges.

Lujan Grisham said, “Most New Mexicans and most Americans want us to deal with the Dreamer issue and I’m in a much stronger position to defend my position” than Pearce.

She also points out that Pearce “said he was against the wall but voted for the wall.”

Pearce said the GOP bills aren’t perfect “but we’ve got to move ourselves forward in some way.”

Obama administration

The Trump administration separated 1,995 children from 1,940 adults from April 19 to May 31, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Pearce argued that the administration’s actions amounted to the same practice of Democratic President Barack Obama in 2014 when a surge of migrants fleeing violence in Central America showed up on the U.S. border with Mexico.

“The camps I visited during the Obama administration had kids in there by themselves, so obviously somebody was separating them before,” Pearce said.

During the Obama-era migration crisis, thousands of unaccompanied minors were placed in holding facilities, just as thousands of unaccompanied minors are being held in today’s shelters along with those who were separated from their parents.

Jeh Johnson, who served as Obama’s Homeland Security Secretary at that time, has said under Obama’s administration entire families were detained at the border during the crisis, but children were rarely separated unless child trafficking or some other crime involving children was suspected.

“Children were kept in these facilities – that’s true,” Lujan Grisham allowed. “Obama did that – that’s true. But he didn’t separate kids at the border and rip them from their parents. Families were kept together.”

Meanwhile, Pearce and Lujan Grisham agreed on at least one thing – that the immigration issue is likely be a factor in the gubernatorial race through the November election, especially if Congress can’t agree on comprehensive reform.

“You’ve got a very stark contrast,” Pearce said, comparing himself to Lujan Grisham on the issue. “I’m trying to figure my way out of it, and my opponent is simply part of the obstruction.”

Lujan Grisham, in turn, accused Pearce and other conservative Republicans of blocking attempts at bipartisan reform.

“I think this election is going to be about jobs, and immigration issues are about the economy and jobs in construction and health care and agriculture,” she said. “In that regard, you bet it will be something we’ll debate and discuss.”

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