Slotkin: Border camps ‘a tragedy … for every single link in the chain’

Donna Holding Facility | U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin photo

After U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) toured migrant holding facilities in Texas last Friday and the U.S.-Mexico border crossing itself, she said the humanitarian “tragedy” there requires the full attention of both parties.

Reps. Paul Mitchell, Elissa Slotkin and Fred Upton visit the southern border | Rep. Upton photo

The freshman Democrat embarked on the trip with several members of the U.S. House’s bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, including U.S. Reps. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden).

“We have groups of Democrats going down and groups of Republicans going down and putting out their statements afterwards, and we just thought it was really important that we see it together,” Slotkin told the Advance Monday.

“As someone who served in the federal government for 14-plus years, I know that resources are critically important, and if people are suffering in overcrowded and squalid conditions, I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Slotkin, a former Pentagon and CIA official. 

The freshman Democrat was referring to her vote last month for a controversial bill funding humanitarian aid at the southern border. Some progressive Democrats argued that it gave the President Trump administration a blank check, not going far enough toward shutting down the border camps and facilities entirely. 

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Fellow freshman U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), who also traveled to a migrant detention facility and decried conditions there, even said “If you see the [U.S.] Senate bill as an option, then you don’t believe in basic human rights.” 

But Slotkin said her support for the measure was only strengthened by her trip to the border, where “the situation was at least somewhat improving … but there’s no getting away from the overwhelming sense of tragedy. And then for me, that tragedy very quickly turned to anger.”

Upon his return, Upton said in a statement that the trip was “incredibly sobering, and the border crisis will only get worse by doing nothing. 

“I have heard from countless folks at home that one of their No. 1 concerns is immigration. They want our border secure, they care about our nation’s security, and they are deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis that is overwhelming our broken immigration system. … The folks I traveled with today have some good suggestions about how we can address the crisis and secure our borders. We are committed to working together on finding a solution that makes up for the failures of the past.”

McAllen Border Station | U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin photo

In a phone interview with the Advance, Slotkin described the trip in detail and explained her pragmatic approach to legislating from a traditionally Republican-leaning district.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: Could you start by just giving a brief overview of what you saw at the border on Friday?

Slotkin: I went with a bipartisan group called the Problem Solvers … down together to the border, and it was one of the first bipartisan trips that’s taken place at the border. … And we saw a series of border facilities and border locations including the Donna holding facility, which is an overflow facility where we saw women and children.

We went to the Hidalgo border crossing, where we saw the three hour line waiting to get in and heard from the Customs and Border [Protection] folks about the strain on their facilities. It reminded me of the facilities on the Ambassador Bridge, imagining just a huge flow of people into a border crossing. 

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We went to the McAllen processing center, which is the location that Vice President [Mike] Pence went to recently, and that the [U.S.] Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general also visited when they saw some of the really serious overcrowding and squalid conditions.

So we went to that facility and saw basically a warehouse that’s been divvied up with chain link fence into different cells for men with children, women with children, and then in some cases, teenage boys who had just come over the border, and there we saw what they’ve done to try and alleviate some of the significant overcrowding.

McAllen Border Station | U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin photo

We went with the border patrol to the Rio Grande River, where [the guide] showed us down a dirt road where the migrants are coming over the border, and we just saw these amazing, beaten-down paths with children’s socks and water bottles and things strewn where hundreds upon hundreds of people are coming over and then making their way to a port of entry to declare themselves and seek asylum. 

We heard from the border patrol officer about how he had made makeshift handmade signs directing the migrants to the port of entry once they came over onto the American side, because he and a number of his fellow officers, just about a month ago had this horrible experience of a mom and three children getting lost, and not taking the normal paths, and he and his fellow officers had to carry out the bodies of that family.

And then we went to a facility being run by a nonprofit organization for unaccompanied minors. So these are boys, usually aged 13 to 17, who came over by themselves and who are now awaiting transfer to a sponsor somewhere in the country. And in the meantime, they’re living in dormitory-style housing, they’re getting some education, they’re going to the cafeteria, and it looks sort of like a boys school.

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Michigan Advance: How did that compare to both your own expectations and what you had previously seen in the media of conditions at the border?

Slotkin: My overwhelming impression of the entire day was just tragedy. It’s a tragedy for everyone, for every single link in the chain. It’s tragic for the migrants who are fleeing violence in places like Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala, who are walking 1,000 miles in the summer heat with small children because they’ve had a sister killed by gangs, or a father killed by gang violence, and they just can’t fathom raising their children or staying in their homes. It’s just misery for them. 

And it’s misery for migrants coming over the border who maybe aren’t fleeing violence, but they just want a better life for their families, and they want to send money back home, and they have no legal way to come and work in agriculture or construction. 

McAllen Border Station | U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin photo

It’s miserable and tragic for the customs and border officials and the border patrol officials, most of whom are all first-generation Americans and really feel like they’ve been demonized, and who are doing the best they can for a job they were never trained to do. The most striking moment for me in the trip was being at the McAllen processing center, and we’re talking to the migrants and and getting a tour of the facility, and a Customs and Border Patrol border protection officer comes by and he’s pushing a pram with an 8-month-old baby inside. 

So it’s a man in a blue uniform, you know, he’s law enforcement, and he’s pushing around an 8-month-old baby. A man had come over the border with the baby, and when he was being processed to go to his next location, he acknowledged that he couldn’t take care of the baby and that he didn’t want to be accused of kidnapping. So he simply handed the baby over to the Customs and Border Protection officers, and they don’t know his name, they don’t know where his mother is, they don’t know how to get a hold of her. 

And everyone on our trip has kids, or grandkids, and you look at this poor Customs and Border Protection officer who’s now caring for this child temporarily, which is not part of his normal job. 

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So you just feel for that poor little baby, you feel for the officer, you feel for his mother back home, you feel for everybody in that situation. I do think that some of the money that Congress approved back in late June is now being spent, and we see additional facilities being stood up, we see supplies everywhere we went, people had access to water and to snacks, and you got the sense that the situation was at least somewhat improving.

A nonprofit temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors | U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin photo

But there’s no getting away from the overwhelming sense of tragedy. And then for me, that tragedy very quickly turned to anger. Because you realize when you’re down there that the misery that you’re seeing is because we do not have immigration laws that work. We do not have comprehensive immigration reform. It’s bad policy and bad legislation from Washington that has created that misery, for every single person in the chain. 

Members went through all of this together, and there was not one member that had a dry eye. At some point during the day, everyone felt the emotion of what they were seeing. And we, unlike other groups that have gone down there, scheduled a couple of hours at the end of the day, to sit together and talk about what the elements of comprehensive immigration reform would be, and what our plan was to draft legislation.

Michigan Advance: How did actually seeing the border made you think differently — it sounds like it may have galvanized your feelings — about your vote last month for more humanitarian aid to the border?

Slotkin: There’s nothing quite like seeing it in person. And frankly, I had visited the border in Detroit, both the bridge and the tunnel, about a week before my trip, and I had met with Customs and Border Protection folks in our own state to get a sense of what ‘normal’ looks looks like. And then you go down to the border, and you meet with folks who are in Customs and Border Protection under a very different circumstance. It just drives home how difficult the situation is for them, as well, and how they don’t want to be taking care of people and detaining people. 

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This is not a position they ever thought that they would be in, and I really felt for them because of our own Customs and Border Protection folks in Detroit and in Port Huron, and kind of imagining them in this completely overwhelming situation of having so many people come over the border. 

It certainly, though, reinforced the importance of adhering to basic humanitarian standards for anyone who comes over. Regardless of overcrowding, regardless of the stress that’s on our officers down there, as Americans, we have to have a certain basic humanitarian standard with which we treat all people. 

Problem Solvers Caucus trip to the U.S.-Mexico border | Rep. Upton photo

And that’s the bill that I proposed a week ago, and that made it out of committee with unanimous bipartisan support last week. It’s a very simple bill. All it does is amend the original Homeland Security Act of 2002, which is the act that stood up the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11.

[That law] says only that the Customs and Border Protection folks have to provide food and water for people coming over the border, and for asylum seekers in particular. We have extended that and proposed language that would expand that list to food, water, shelter, appropriate nutrition, hygiene and access to emergency medical care. 

And the way that I was able to get unanimous bipartisan support in committee … was because I simply used the humanitarian standards that we use in our Bureau of Prisons when we deal with prisoners, and in the Geneva Convention when we deal with prisoners of war. I was able to make the case that if these are the humanitarian standards with which we treat our prisoners and our prisoners of war, then they certainly should qualify as the standards for someone seeking asylum along the border.

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Michigan Advance: There’s been disagreement among Michigan’s Democratic members of Congress about that border vote, with Rep. Tlaib being fairly outspoken against it. Have you had conversations with her or any of the other Democrats who opposed it, and have you tried to make the case not just in a bipartisan setting, but within the Democratic Party, that your approach to the border crisis is the appropriate one?

Slotkin: You’ll have to speak to Rep. Tlaib and the others. They did not vote for either the House bill or the Senate bill. The House version, which arguably was better than the Senate version, they did not vote for that one … so you’re really going to have to talk to them. 

For me, especially as someone who served in the federal government for 14-plus years, I know that resources are critically important. And if people are suffering, and they’re in overcrowded and squalid conditions, I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I’m going to get money to those folks as fast as possible. 

The bill was drafted in the Senate by [Democratic U.S.] Sen. [Patrick] Leahy of Vermont, and Sen. Leahy has been a champion of human rights around the world. Speaking as someone who served in the Department of Defense, he was the No.1 champion of making sure militaries around the world were adhering to human rights standards if we were going to give them money. So for me, did I think the Senate bill was perfect? No. Am I going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good? No, not when I see pictures like I was seeing. 

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So that’s why I voted for the Senate bill. Also, I think it’s important to remember that the Senate bill passed with 84 votes, and it was a bipartisan vote. When a vote passes with 84 votes, including our two senators in Michigan [Democrats Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow], when it comes back to the House that’s a lot of power they have, right? That left us in the House with very little leverage with which to negotiate. 

So I’m also a realist, and I understood that with such bipartisan support in the Senate it was going to be very hard to extract major changes from [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). And so I voted for it because I had a sense of urgency to get resources to the border, and I was able to see some of those funds starting to be used on this trip.

Michigan Advance: You’ve raised a lot of money in a Midwestern swing district. From your first six months in office, in terms of everything including constituent services, working on the Hill, and fundraising, what advice would you share with Democrats in similar positions, from your experience so far?

Slotkin: Any freshman spends at least the first few months getting their footing, and making sure you can, frankly, differentiate the workhorses from the show ponies. So that’s what we spent our early time doing. 

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I mean, I don’t know that anyone who’s only seven months into a job should be giving advice. But what I would say is that the people will tell you what they want you working on. Your constituents will tell you exactly what they think, and they’ll do that through letters and emails, and coming to your town halls, and writing up ads in the paper and stopping you in the Kroger. 

If you are available to your constituents, you are out in the community, and you are making an effort to reach out to people, whether they voted for you or not, they will tell you exactly what they think. And it’s helpful because then you have a mandate to work on things. You know what you need to focus on. So for me, I know that if I am not working on prescription drug legislation I am not doing my job, because that’s what people stop me in the street to talk to me about — the price of insulin, the price of inhalers, the price of EpiPens. 

If you listen to people, it’s not complicated. If you are in these jobs for different reasons, because you like a public profile, or you’re trying to get your next job … and you don’t either make yourself available to constituents or take them at their word and fight for what they are concerned about, you’re going to lose in a swing district. You’re going to lose. If it’s about you and not about the mission, you’re going to lose. And you should.

Michigan Advance: You and [fellow freshman U.S.] Rep. [Haley] Stevens (D-Rochester) were the only two Michigan Democrats in Congress who voted to table last week’s impeachment measure. What was your rationale for that vote?

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Slotkin: We have to be methodical about our process, and moving to impeachment based on a motion that most of us heard of… I think no more than 72 hours before it came to the floor, is not the way we do this. I think it is excellent that we have [former Special Counsel] Robert Mueller coming [to testify before congressional committees] this week, I think it’s excellent that we’ll have him for many hours and that the public will get to hear from him. 

I think that is a very important moment. I have been asking for that from the beginning, and I think it’s very important that it’s coming to fruition. That is how you go through a methodical, judicious process when you’re talking about something as important as impeachment, not with a quick motion. And that’s why I voted the way I did.

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson is a former associate editor of the Advance and is now a freelance writer in Chicago. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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