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Bipartisan immigration deal likely to fail in Congress. Rep. Ruben Gallego is a yes — but wants more

Senators in Washington are scheduled to vote Wednesday on a major bipartisan border and national security bill that Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was key in shaping. It’s aimed at addressing the country’s overrun immigration system and curtailing the record numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. But, the bill appears likely to fail as the political chips are falling. 

Likely GOP presidential nominee and former President Donald Trump is telling Republicans to vote against it, and House Speaker Mike Johnson has said it’s “dead on arrival” in his chamber. Even among Arizona’s Congressional delegation — not all of the Democrats are united in their support. 

Longtime Southern Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva said he was disappointed with the bill — echoing immigrant advocates who say the bill is punitive, and reads like “an extreme Republican wish list filled with failed Trump-era immigration policies.” 

But, Rep. Ruben Gallego says he’s a yes vote — if he gets to vote on it in the House. Gallego is running for Sinema’s Senate seat, and knows immigration will be a central issue in that election. But, he told The Show that’s not why he’s supporting this immigration compromise. 

What Kari Lake doesn't like about the Senate's bipartisan border deal

RUBEN GALLEGO: No, I mean, what played into it? I’ve been visiting the border and our border communities for the last year and a half and talking to law enforcement, talking to the Border Patrol, talking to our local mayors and our nonprofits that are dealing with this crisis at the border. And they have been very clear what they need. This bill is the closest answer that we can get right now.

It’s not ideal. I wish it had been sooner. I wish there was elements of immigration reform. But at the same time, we are dealing in divided government, and you have to compromise. And I think this is an adequate compromise that answers the needs of Arizonans and our border communities.

LAUREN GILGER: So let’s talk through some of the things that you like and some of the things that you’re a little concerned about in this bill. It sounds like they’re a little bit of a mix for you. Tell us first about the importance of local funding. This is supplying some local funding to the border communities. You mentioned talking to people on the border often about this kind of thing. What do they say they need? How does this fill that?

GALLEGO: Well, some of the local funding is really important, especially to help with the nonprofits that take a lot of these asylum seekers away from the border because they tend to cause a lot of expenditures for these small border communities with a very small tax base. In that regard, that's a very good thing.

What I also heard from these border mayors is that they also need to be reimbursed for law enforcement and emergency services. So for their firefighters, for the EMTs and for law enforcement. And the one thing that this bill does not have is reimbursements for those expenditures, which I think is a flaw, but not enough, obviously, for me to vote for it.

In regards to other areas, one of the things that we heard from our border communities is that they believe that the asylum system is being abused and that it needs to be streamlined so people aren’t using the asylum system as a de facto visa program. And I think this hits some of those marks, but it has to have the funding.

And I think that’s the most important thing that is in this bill, is it has the funding to both, number one, streamline the system. But number two, also give people an opportunity to actually argue whether or not they have asylum, because we don’t want to destroy the asylum system in the process of this.

GILGER: So there seems to be right now, Congressman, like a political sense that something has to be done about immigration. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a huge issue for voters in this upcoming election. But many advocates who are on the border and many of your fellow Democrats say this bill goes way too far in terms of compromise. They say that allowing for the federal government, for example, to shut down asylum processing when immigration levels are high at the border is inhumane. It contradicts the sort of American values that the country was founded on to allow people to come here. What do you think about that?

GALLEGO: Well, I think if you look at the bill, it does not shut down asylum process. It does give the option to do it. But it’s not nothing that is guaranteed in stone. And for people that are still applying through normal means, such as through an appointment or overseas, there’s still a lot of ways that people are going to be applying.

And as a matter of fact, I think because we’re fully funding our asylum officers, you’re going to get people to actually have hearings faster, especially for people that do deserve asylum. You’re not going to be dealing with some of the men that are coming over that clearly do not deserve some that are clogging up the system.

So, again, they’re not also wrong. I mean, ideally, I would have loved to have added more immigration reform substance to this, especially maybe protecting our Dreamers and giving them a pathway to citizenship. But that wasn’t going to happen. And at the same time, you do have border communities that are suffering and there is a problem.

And we have to be realistic while still keeping our core values as a country that welcomes asylum seekers. And I think this bill does that.

GILGER: So another big criticism here is that in those kinds of measures that I mentioned, like it’s bringing back Trump-era policies like Title 42 that were challenged in the courts often. Do you think that’s the case here or do you think this is different?

GALLEGO: I think that’s different just because Title 42 essentially just stopped any form of processing of asylum seekers and then had a de facto Remain in Mexico policy, which eventually did not work as we saw, there was huge surges of asylum seekers right before COVID.

So this is going to, I think, create a couple of things. Number one, more transparency when it comes to asylum seekers. Ihere’s going to be quicker adjudication whether you have a right to asylum or not. And by doing that, you’re going to have less amount of people coming to the border trying to get in and stay in the country four to five years until they get their hearing in front of an immigration judge.

So this is a more transparent way to do this. I think it’s a better process. Ideally we want to make sure that it’s a balance between security and, of course again, keeping our asylum system intact. But this actually makes sure that the asylum system continues to survive into the future.

GILGER: So you mentioned before some of the things that you wish were in the bill, including protection for Dreamers. Is this sort of a first step in your mind? Are you hoping that more will be done on this in the future?

GALLEGO: Yeah, I think more should have been done in the past. My biggest criticism of the Senate last year is that we passed three immigration reform measures that were essentially filibustered at the Senate level.

I believe strongly in my core that you’re never going to have real border security unless you have immigration reform together. And so this is more tilted towards border security. But I think given the opportunity and giving the right amount of votes that we need, we need to also have immigration reform.

GILGER: So you mentioned this a little bit there, right? Like, you’re getting at this idea that this is not the first time that lawmakers have tried to strike a compromise on comprehensive immigration reform. It’s often been Arizona leaders who have done that in our history. But it’s never really been successful, not in the last several decades here.

Why do you think that is? Why is immigration always sort of this political football?

GALLEGO: Because it is a political football that people like to use as wedge issues. But I also think part of the reason is because we’ve always subjected immigration reform to the filibuster. And there’s always going to be 40 people, 40 senators that are going to reject immigration reform because they want to continue to throw the political football.

GILGER: Let me ask you lastly, Congressman, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson has said that this bill is dead on arrival there. Donald Trump is against it. Do you think that you’ll get the chance to vote on this? Like, would this be too much of a political win for Democrats heading into a presidential election year?

GALLEGO: Look, I don’t know, but I’m disappointed they’re thinking that way. Clearly these Republicans, they go to the border all the time — put on their flak jackets and their helmets and talk about the border and border security — don’t really care about it as an actual solution.

They’re not listening to the Border Patrol union, which, by the way, people that I usually will never align with politically, when we’re both saying that this is a good solution and they’re saying there’s a solution that’s needed, the Republicans are not listening. When they decide to go and talk to these small-town mayors on the border — whether it’s Arizona or Texas — and they tell them “this is what we need,” and they decide to use them as political props, won’t listen to them when they actually ask for support in this bill. It tells you where their values are.

They want this as a political wedge issue. They do not want a solution. And, you know, because of that, we should make sure that they don’t ever take power because we’ll never see a solution.

GILGER: All right. We’ll leave it there. Congressman Ruben Gallego joining us. Thank you very much for coming on. I appreciate it.

GALLEGO: Thank you.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.