Detroit Free Press

Border security debate hits west Mich.

Issue will be on front burner when Trump visits Scholten’s Grand Rapids district

- Todd Spangler

If anyone knows the legal ins and outs of border policy and immigratio­n in Michigan’s congressio­nal delegation, it should be U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten, DGrand Rapids.

She worked as an immigratio­n lawyer and for the U.S. Justice Department on immigratio­n issues. She has written law review articles on the subject and worked as an immigratio­n staff attorney for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York. And she has been outspoken on the topic: In 2018, as a staff attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, she sharply criticized then-President Donald Trump’s administra­tion for its zero tolerance policy on unauthoriz­ed border crossings, for family separation­s, for making asylum laws “more restrictiv­e every day.”

At a speech at a park in Holland six years ago, she spoke of the need to help immigrants, especially those in fear for their lives from violence, make it into the U.S., saying, “People will move, especially for their children. And we need policies, immigratio­n policies, that reflect this inherent freedom of movement and we need to elect officials who are willing to commit to enacting policies that reflect this basic human right.”

Fast-forward, then, to this year, when after a two-day trip in February to the Southern border — not long after December 2023’s record number of more than 300,000 U.S. Border Patrol encounters with migrants and amid a yearslong inundation of undocument­ed immigrants crossing into the U.S. — Scholten returned, describing “a national security crisis, a humanitari­an crisis and an economic crisis” that needed to be addressed. She spoke to Border Patrol officers, detention center workers, doctors and migrants themselves. And she renewed a call for bipartisan legislatio­n

that, among other measures, would result in expedited deportatio­ns for anyone not passing an initial asylum screening while also allowing some workers to remain in the country illegally as long as they met certain standards, stayed out of trouble beyond minor offenses and paid into a training fund for U.S. workers.

New campuses would be built along the southern border to screen asylum seekers; prescreeni­ng centers would be built elsewhere in Central America to make determinat­ions on their admissibil­ity. More border personnel would be hired.

“One thing is clear,” she said, “we cannot delay our efforts to address this crisis a single day longer. This is a red alarm emergency.”

But Republican­s — including Trump, who will campaign in Scholten’s district in Grand Rapids on the issue next Tuesday — argue that crisis is one she and other Democrats, including President Joe Biden, helped create and perpetuate.

They claim Scholten and others embraced open border policies that led to the surge and then failed to demand Biden enact tighter controls within his powers to end it. They say she voted against legislatio­n that could have helped stem the flow of immigrants into the U.S.

“Scholten has never once voted to secure the border, nor has she called on the Biden administra­tion to enforce our existing laws. Her communitie­s are now paying the price,” Mike Marinella, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressio­nal Committee, said, referring to the March 22 shooting death of a 25-year-old woman, Ruby Garcia, of Grand Rapids, who police say was killed by a previously deported man with whom she had a relationsh­ip who had reentered the country illegally.

Marinella said that Scholten is “changing her tune” with an election this year. She represents a potential swing district in west Michigan, one previously held by Republican­s, and immigratio­n, polls have consistent­ly shown, is a top issue among voters.

Trump, unsurprisi­ngly, has gone further, hyperbolic­ally suggesting in campaign literature that the border issue has become a “bloodbath” and that Democrats are to blame, saying, “Joe Biden’s violent criminal illegals are invading backyards and communitie­s across Michigan resulting in death, destructio­n, and chaos,” despite evidence that immigrants are far less likely to commit violent crimes than nativeborn Americans.

But just like that, in a congressio­nal district some 1,300 miles from the Southern border and far closer to Canada than Mexico, the issue of illegal immigratio­n — and who is to blame, if anyone, for the increase in border crossings — is playing out for Michigande­rs who will play a key role in determinin­g not only which party controls Congress after the next election but also who becomes president: Biden, who is running for reelection, or Trump.

Scholten, however, argues that she has always supported comprehens­ive immigratio­n reform. She has been part of an effort to crack down on immigrant child labor after reports involving her district. And she said she wants, and has wanted, laws that secure the border, provide humanitari­an relief to those appropriat­ely seeking it and create a pathway for needed migrant workers in the U.S. without shutting down immigratio­n altogether, which is unrealisti­c and not in the national interest. And that’s true, she said, even if that wasn’t mentioned in that speech given at the height of the family separation­s during the Trump administra­tion.

“I think we absolutely are experienci­ng too many people crossing the border than our border is prepared to handle,” she told the Free Press. “And it’s important that we get that full quote in there, because I think what’s happening right now is that you have the far right, who is just saying, ‘It’s just too many people — full stop.’ I don’t think that’s the answer. Then you have the far left that’s refusing to recognize that there’s a problem.”

“I was actually one of the very first Democrats to say that there was a problem at the border, even when the administra­tion was continuing to say, you know, everything’s fine, the border’s secure,” she said, referring to her cosponsors­hip of the bipartisan legislatio­n nearly a year ago. “I was on record as saying, no, it’s not. There is a crisis here . ... However, I do not think that the ultimate solution is to completely and forever shut down the border.”

“We need additional workers. We need to remain true to our roots as as a country that can and will provide safe passage for individual­s who are seeking asylum, from repressive and persecutor­y government­s,” she continued. “Those are things that can be realized. We can have a just and fair immigratio­n system that both protects our national security, boosts our economic growth and provides humanitari­an relief.”

But in today’s hypercharg­ed, divisive political reality, can we?

Visit to border came as Republican­s torched immigratio­n compromise

Scholten, a freshman Democrat, who, after losing a congressio­nal race to U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, in 2020, defeated John Gibbs in 2022 in a newly drawn, somewhat more Democratic-leaning district, visited the border at a time when immigratio­n was becoming a hotly debated issue in Washington.

Republican­s had been trashing Biden and the Democrats for more than a year over the exploding number of border crossings following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and the employment boom that followed and even some urban Democratic officials, faced with an influx of immigrants — some of whom were bused or flown from southern states to make a political point — were complainin­g of the disruption and cost.

Then, in the first week of February — just as Scholten was visiting the border — Senate negotiator­s released a bipartisan bill, crafted with the help of U.S. Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, to fund aid to Ukraine and Israel while addressing reform on the Southern border.

It tightened asylum rules, made deportatio­ns easier, added border staff, provided funding for the border wall, and restricted “catch and release” — the practice of releasing immigrants into the community while waiting for status hearings. It also barred acceptance of even asylum seekers when crossings reached a certain threshold.

While Democratic negotiator­s said it would provide for quicker and more fair adjudicati­ons for migrants and noted it included some key provisions like expanding legal immigratio­n and funding lawyers for immigrant children, there were detractors: The head of the National Immigratio­n Law Center said it would “decimate the U.S. asylum system.”

Biden said he’d sign it. Democrats said they’d pass it. It represente­d the strongest border bill in four decades. But Trump called it “horrendous,” a “gift” to Biden. Republican­s in the House, saying Biden had all the authority he already needed to shut down the border and that they’d already sent the Democratic-led Senate an even-stricter bill that had no chance of passing, declared it “dead on arrival.”

And Democrats pounced.

“The MAGA (Make America Great Again) Republican­s said no because they’re afraid of Donald Trump,” Biden said, promising to make it clear to voters that even as the GOP insisted something be done about the border they refused to pass legislatio­n that would have required a tightening of border security because it could help Democrats in this year’s elections.

Scholten, meanwhile, was among those calling for it to be brought up for a vote in the House.

Then, Tom Suozzi, a former Democratic congressma­n from New York who had been targeted previously as being soft on immigratio­n, won a special election to a formerly Republican-held U.S. House seat after addressing the issue head-on, saying the border should be shut down temporaril­y and that migrants who assault police should be deported. By combining a tougher stance and the GOP refusal to pass stronger measures, the New York Times suggested, Democrats had found their playbook to neutralize the immigratio­n issue.

“He got it right,” said Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisa­n organizati­on that tracks the issue. Where Democrats, he said, had earlier adopted a position where it was forbidden to talk about excluding anyone from immigratin­g, Suozzi represente­d a change. “He moderated his position to say, we can’t welcome everybody.”

“The playbook for Republican­s is provided by Trump,” Chisti said. “Even when people like Lankford negotiate a reasonable compromise they are brought down by the (former) president saying don’t do it … because you want to keep the issue alive. They are not interested in solving the problem.”

“It’s become such a lucrative political issue, why would you give up on that?”

Both parties have sparred over the issue for decades

In recent decades, the political currency of immigratio­n has been balanced between Democrats who would likely face intra-party challenges for accepting tighter rules on border entries and Republican­s who would face them for giving any ground on the issue. And it has led to a prolonged stalemate.

The last major immigratio­n reform was passed by Congress and signed into law 38 years ago by Republican President Ronald Reagan and it did something virtually unthinkabl­e today: It offered amnesty to immigrants who had entered the country without documentat­ion prior to 1982 in exchange for efforts to better secure the border.

In 2013, a bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate adopted another compromise bill, one that offered further cracking down on border entries and verifying the status of workers in exchange for giving those immigrants without permission in the country a pathway to potential citizenshi­p. It came in the wake of the 2012 election — when Republican­s did worse among Hispanic voters than they had in several elections —− but died in the House, where critics complained that it amounted to amnesty for criminal entries into the country.

Then, in 2015, Trump began a campaign for president which promised a crackdown on immigratio­n — characteri­zing Mexicans, in particular, as drug users and as rapists, while adding he assumed “some are good people” — and thundered about the need for a wall along the entire border. It never happened: His administra­tion replaced hundreds of miles of barriers and added about 50 miles of primary barrier to what was already there. (Mexico also didn’t pay for them, as Trump said it would.) And while initially border encounters dropped to their lowest level in decades, they quickly rose again, surpassing other recent years even as the administra­tion cracked down on illegal entries and ramped up family separation­s, largely ending those practices under court order in June 2018. The number wouldn’t fall precipitou­sly until the COVID-19 pandemic largely shut down the border and Trump used the Title 42 authority to remove migrants as a public health measure.

Biden campaigned on rolling back many of Trump’s initiative­s, providing temporary protection­s for immigrants brought into the country as children and limiting enforcemen­t efforts inside the country soon after taking office. But he kept Title 42 restrictio­ns in place until May of last year, then replaced them with other policies limiting entries of asylum seekers and sending some migrants back into Mexico.

Those actions came as the pandemic ended, the economy rebounded and the number of border encounters skyrockete­d, topping 2 million in each of the last two fiscal years compared with about 852,000 in fiscal 2019, the highest it got during Trump’s term.

Chisti said Republican­s go “a little too far” in blaming Democrats for the surge at the border, saying Biden has kept enforcemen­t measures in place and that Trump’s “hallmark” policy, the use of Title 42, actually allowed people to try to reenter without any record that they’d been forced out before. On the other hand, he said, the mere fact that Biden campaigned on reversing Trump’s more draconian rules “was enough” to prompt smugglers to ramp up their efforts to get migrants in, since they could suggest to those interested in entry they’d have an easier time of it.

But, he also pointed out, Biden “never said the country’s open,” despite Republican talking points to the contrary.

Scholten now finds herself at the center of an issue that shows no signs of being settled. Following the end of the border proposal and the Suozzi election, Republican­s began emphasizin­g the death of a 22-year-old nursing student, Laken Riley, who police say was killed by a man who entered the country illegally and had been arrested before.

That tracked Trump’s efforts in his first presidenti­al election to use a young woman’s shooting in San Francisco by an undocument­ed immigrant as evidence for the need for a border crackdown.

Garcia’s death in Grand Rapids this month — with a 25-year-old Mexican in the country illegally accused of murder and carjacking — appears likely to gain the same sort of attention, with Trump coming and Republican officials putting out statements blasting Democrats for “open border policies.” Paul Hudson, an East Grand Rapids lawyer running as a Republican against Scholten, put out a statement saying while he didn’t want to use a tragedy like Garcia’s death to score political points, there was no question in his mind that “what led to this killing was a series of breakdowns in our immigratio­n system” and that Biden — and Scholten — could do more to close down the border.

As a practical reality, closing down the Southern border is an impossibil­ity: No policy could stop any and all immigratio­n. And, if anything, there are Michigan businesses that count on immigrants, that in many cases they can’t get enough workers, even with the surge at the Southern border: For instance, Mark Ware, CEO of Mission Point resort on Mackinac Island, has been talking with Scholten about expanding the availabili­ty of visas for immigrants who could work for him, with current caps restrictin­g his ability to get the workers he needs.

“We recruit across the country to find domestic workers, but we can’t find the people do to it,” he said.

Scholten says she understand­s the need for immigratio­n reform better than most, recalling her work for the 2nd Circuit and the number of cases she dealt with where people claiming asylum didn’t meet the definition and had been told by some smuggler to say they were afraid to return to their home country as a way to remain in the U.S.

But that doesn’t mean credible claims shouldn’t allow people into the U.S., she said. As for whether Democrats or Republican­s deserve the blame for the border surge, she says the answer is both. On the one hand, she thinks it’s disingenuo­us for Republican­s to suggest any president has total control over border issues when Trump himself asked Congress for help (at least in terms of funding). As for Democrats, she said they “also need to come to the table and recognize that there is a crisis.”

“We have to fix it,” she said. “And that doesn’t mean we have to do so at the cost of humanity and respecting human dignity. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. Additional­ly, Republican­s need to recognize that comprehens­ive immigratio­n reform will be an economic boom.”

Last week, Scholten put out a statement on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, on Garcia’s death, calling for border reform to be enacted and the perpetrato­r to be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Republican­s responded with a statement criticizin­g her for not specifical­ly calling the man accused of the murder an illegal immigrant.

 ?? CODY SCANLAN/HOLLAND SENTINEL ?? U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten, D-Grand Rapids, has worked as an immigratio­n lawyer and for the U.S. Justice Department on immigratio­n issues.
CODY SCANLAN/HOLLAND SENTINEL U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten, D-Grand Rapids, has worked as an immigratio­n lawyer and for the U.S. Justice Department on immigratio­n issues.

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