Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
LAS CRUCES – A year after his death, Sen. Pete Domenici’s legacy loomed large at his namesake public policy conference.
“There was no better senator. No better man. And no better friend,” said former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn during opening remarks Wednesday in a crowded hall at the Las Cruces Convention Center.
The men served in Congress together for 24 years, arriving in Washington in the early 1970s during the Watergate era. He noted that from 1973 to 1976 there were three presidents: Richard Nixon, who resigned; Gerald Ford, who replaced him; and Jimmy Carter, who beat Ford in the November 1976 election.
“This is not the first time we’ve gone through a little turmoil in Washington,” Nunn said. “The Republic will survive.”
Nunn, a Democrat, said Domenici’s pragmatic bipartisan approach led to “significant achievements,” including reducing “fiscal time bombs,” such as the ballooning national deficit, as well as disposing of nuclear weapons before they could get into terrorist hands as the former Soviet Union crumbled.
“You never get credit for what doesn’t happen or what you prevented,” he said.
National security, midterm elections and immigration are the topics for this year’s two-day conference, which is organized by The Domenici Institute at New Mexico State University.
Regarding national security, Gen. Stephen Wilson, vice chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force, told the audience the accelerated pace of technology development is leading to disruption that requires “all of us to think differently.”
Wilson said changing threats also have forced America to adapt.
“I contend as Americans we thought completely different on Sept. 12, 2001,” he said.
Wilson and other speakers took questions from a panel of students from New Mexico universities.
Bowen Perry, a senior at Alamogordo High School in the NMSU early college program, asked about the shortage of fighter pilots.
“We’re working really hard on our pilot production business. Holloman Air Force Base is a key part of that,” Wilson said, referring to an expansion of F-16 fighter pilot training at the base near Alamogordo.
Wilson said the Air Force also has to do a better job of retaining experienced pilots who leave the military when their service abroad takes a toll on family life at home.
On Wednesday afternoon, the discussion shifted to immigration, another important issue for Domenici, who worked for “common sense immigration” policies, Nunn said.
Several speakers mentioned that a 9-year-old Domenici was separated from his mother, an undocumented immigrant, who was taken away by FBI agents investigating suspected Italian sympathizers during World War II. She was released and later became a U.S. citizen.
Domenici told members of Congress about his experience after a failed effort at immigration reform.
“I wasn’t trying to impress anybody,” Domenici said at the time. “I think it just puts a little heart, a little soul into the discussion.”
Alan Kraut, a professor of history at American University, recounted the moment during his talk and said Congress and the president “might remember to interject a little heart and a little soul into the debate” about immigration.
Kraut said fear of foreign-born people is part of America’s history. He said it has, at times, led to the rise of nativist, xenophobic and racist groups.
“All of this is a kind of echo of things past that is coming around again,” Kraut said of the current backlash by some groups.
Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said extreme “either/or” positions prevent lawmakers from reaching a compromise.
“It’s not mass deportation or abolish ICE,” Brown said.
“We need to support the middle – those members willing to work across the aisle like Senator Pete – and build from there,” Brown said.
Any lasting solution must come from Congress rather than court battles or depend on which president is in office, according to Brown.
“The alternative is we continue to limp along with a broken, outdated, antiquated immigration system that nobody likes,” she said.
A group of about two dozen demonstrators stood outside the convention center on the first day of the conference holding signs, including one that read: “Immigrants make America Great.”
Organizers with “Justice for All” said the goal was to send a message to conference participants about the plight of “Dreamers” and separated families.
“Remember that the Dreamers are in limbo,” said Cristen Biad Ismond of Justice For All. “They’re tired. They’re starting to lose hope.”
Jon Barela, CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, in his talk inside the convention center agreed Congress needs to “act quickly” to protect Dreamers for both humanitarian and economic reasons.
The Domenici Public Policy Conference wraps up today with a focus on the midterm elections and the changing political landscape.