In the basement of a Baltimore church, with signs outside reading “You are Home,” U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) shared on Monday observations from his recent trip to the southern border with immigrant service providers.
Cardin traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border last week with other Senate Democrats on a fact-finding mission.
“What we saw were people that were desperate, that needed to leave because they had no choice,” Cardin told the July meeting of the Latino Provider Network gathered at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. “They recognized the danger of the journey, but they felt they had no choice for their families.”
On Monday, the senator was asked by representatives from the providers – who see first-hand how American policies at the border play out in Maryland – about several issues, including what Congress can do to address policies they find harmful.
Cardin said policies being implemented at the southern border – such as metering for entry and “Remain in Mexico” rules are meant to discourage people from coming to the U.S. and that’s “not what America should be.”
He also decried other policy changes including revocation of temporary protected status for those who fled dangerous situations in their home countries and still fear returning and challenges to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Cardin said there is bipartisan support in Congress for comprehensive immigration reform and for investment in Northern Triangle countries – home to migrant crises – to invest in criminal justice systems and the economies.
“We desperately need immigration reform. And … there are the votes in the Senate and the House to pass it. Overwhelmingly. But you have to have presidential leadership, and we don’t have that today to solve the problem,” Cardin said.
A man in the crowd who identified himself as an immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 1981 and who has family members who have overstayed visas told Cardin he finds the American immigration system “despicable.”
“We hear all this rhetoric about bipartisan and bipartisanship, but that’s not what we see. I hear people talking, but nobody’s actually doing it,” the man said, putting the blame on both the Republican and Democratic parties. “… I want to see actions.”
Cardin responded that many of his Republican colleagues want to “do the right thing” about immigration policies, but fear retribution from President Trump. He pointed to former Republican senators such as Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) as former colleagues who were attacked by Trump after voicing opposition to some of his immigration policies.
“I think we have the will in the Congress to pass immigration reform. We’ve done it before. The Senate did it with 60 votes. The people that are behind it are willing to do that again,” Cardin said. “So why does it not get done today? The reason is one person: the president of the United States. The president of the United States believes that immigration is a winning issue for him in the 2020 elections. He does not want to get a bill passed.”
Naomi Steinberg, vice president for policy and advocacy at HIAS, was concerned about a Politico story that reported Trump is considering setting the refugee admissions into the U.S. to zero, or a very low figure.
Cardin noted that Trump cut the number of refugee admissions into the U.S. dramatically this year, to about 30,000, and the number of people actually allowed into the country is much lower.
Cardin called that “ridiculous.”
“The United States has generally been the leader, globally, on keeping borders open for people who are refugees. We’ve asked countries to do that over time,” Cardin said. “… And the United States is closing its door. Closing its door to refugees and closing its door to asylum seekers. It is just wrong.”
He said lawmakers are looking for legislative solutions to avoid further decreases to the refugee admission program. “Because I do know that there is large sentiment that what the president is doing is wrong,” he said.
Giuliana Valencia-Banks, outreach coordinator for the Esperanza Center, pointed out that many of the immigrants coming through the U.S. border will settle in Maryland. She asked Cardin how the state should help and what he would say to the immigrants headed for Maryland.
“First of all, welcome. I’m proud that our community has the resources to take in a significant number of the new arrivals,” Cardin said.
To others, Cardin would stress that new immigrants will be valuable to the state’s economy and an answer to the small business owners he hears from who need more employees.
“New arrivals work harder and want to do more to help their new country than any other group of Americans. They are less likely to get into legal trouble, more likely to work more hours and they realize the preciousness of where they are,” Cardin said. “So I think it’s going to help us.”
Crisaly De Los Santos, president of the LatinX UniDOS at Baltimore City Community College, asked why immigrant students should consider going to college, given the high costs and the risks if their status becomes an issue after graduation. She noted that many immigrants have established, professional careers in their home countries, but end up in low-level jobs in the U.S. because their degrees aren’t recognized.
Cardin agreed that high costs need to be brought down – for everyone – and that immigrant graduates should be encouraged to remain in the U.S.
“I’m a firm believer that if you get a college degree, with that diploma we should give you a visa and a path toward citizenship. We want you,” Cardin said. “… And there’s talk about doing that.”
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