WASHINGTON, D.C. — “Let’s face it: I’ve been a thorn in leadership’s side,” says Arizona Republican Rep. Matt Salmon, sitting at his desk in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Earlier that day, Salmon had just been named by Speaker John Boehner to a special “working group” on the crisis at the southern U.S. border, where tens of thousands of unaccompanied children are streaming into the country with hopes that President Obama will grant them amnesty.
Salmon is the most conservative member of the new group, and his selection by Boehner is surprising, to say the least, given that the Arizonan has been a leading critic of House leadership.
“Probably nobody was more shocked than me, but I was pleasantly surprised,” Salmon says.
On the other side of the ledger, the group includes Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a passionate advocate for a comprehensive immigration bill, and Rep. John Carter (R-TX), who negotiated for years with liberal Democrats, including Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), to craft an immigration bill that never saw the light of day.
Leading the new group is Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX). Its other members include House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michal McCaul (R-TX), and Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM).
“They put some independent-minded people on there,” Salmon says. “At least they didn’t stack it up with a bunch of ‘yes people [for Obama or Boehner]'” he adds. “I’m glad to see that.”
With his selection to the working group, Salmon is emerging as something of a conduit between Boehner and the right flank of the GOP conference on the issue. Last October, Salmon told an audience he had met privately with the Speaker, who vowed that the House wouldn’t enter a “conference committee” on the Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, widely denounced by immigration hawks.
The formation of the working group comes as the border crisis is deepening.
Since October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained crossing into the United States through the southwest border – the vast majority of whom have been from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – a 99 percent increase over last year.
“The humanitarian crisis will not be fixed; it will be exacerbated if we don’t deal with the border enforcement part, with the law part of it. If we don’t deal with that, the waves will just keep coming,” Salmon tells me.
Earlier this month, Salmon visited the detention center in Nogales, Arizona – where the government is housing hundreds of illegal immigrant unaccompanied minors. What he found, the Arizona Republican says, is that all the 140 Customs and Border Patrol officers at the center have been taken off the border to take care of the children.
“These border cops, as I call them, are just as frustrated as anyone because they’re not allowed to do their job. Their hands are tied, and one of the reasons their hands are tied, especially with the unaccompanied minors, is because of our existing laws on trafficking – human trafficking,” he says, referring to a Bush-era law that requires unaccompanied minors from countries not contiguous with the United States to receive an immigration hearing.
“The problem is guys like me believe these waves are going to keep coming if we don’t, through our actions, send a really clear and unambiguous message that there is no amnesty for these children and that they will be processed back to their countries as quickly as possible,” he adds, noting that on average, seven years elapse before unaccompanied minors receive a court hearing.
As the matter has worsened, a major debate has erupted in Washington over whether President Obama’s unilateral amnesty for illegal aliens brought to the U.S. as minors, colloquially called “DREAMers” in reference to the “DREAM Act,” a proposal to do the same, has caused the influx.
Salmon cites Obama’s Rose Garden announcement of the unilateral amnesty – called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – as a beginning of the problem.
“I think he thought he was doing a really compassionate thing,” Salmon says. “The question that I asked these CBP guys, nobody could answer, but just wonder, is ‘for every child I see here’ – and there were 1,250 children there in these cages – ‘for every child that’s there, how many didn’t make it?'”
“If we don’t clarify that there is no amnesty and that they will be processed immediately, there will be no deterrent, and the waves will keep coming,” he says, stressing that the crisis is as much a law enforcement issue as it is humanitarian.
“More children will die, more children will end up in slavery, and more children will be in cages. How is that compassionate?” he asks.
One proposal Salmon is reviewing would give additional flexibility for CBP to immediately process children for removal, instead of keeping them in the United States for immigration hearings. Salmon asserts that the long periods between their initial detention and court hearings are a major problem.
“We’ve got to change that. And hopefully the President will be incentivized, because of the humanitarian crisis, to work with us to close that problem, fix that problem in the law so that they can be processed quickly and not be here seven years,” he states.
“If you made that much in a year – if you spend $8,000 to get a child to America, only to have that child come back the next week, would you do it again? And what would you tell your friends who were thinking of doing the same thing? ‘Don’t do it. You’re wasting $8,000. You’re wasting a year of your income.’ So that is the only thing that is going to stop this,” Salmon says.