Senator Martha McSally has been busy in Mohave County with community events and round table discussions, and she visited Yuma on Thursday afternoon to show the acting Secretary of Homeland Security around.
“I've been there several times,” McSally said, “but it will be important to go there with him.” She will be showing him around, getting updates from local leaders and Border Patrol to “see what else we can do to help.”
She tweeted on Thursday after her visit, “We must treat all migrants — including those who illegally cross the border — with the utmost care and respect while in [Department of Homeland Security] custody.”
On Wednesday morning, McSally met me at the Bonanza Café in Fort Mohave to talk about what she’s been up to. Here’s the conversation.
Q: What changes do you think are necessary for the immigration system?
A: So I have legislation with Lindsey Graham that just came out of his committee. Unfortunately, so far we don't have any Democrats supporting us. I do believe there is opportunity for bipartisan support. We have to do more to secure the border, for sure, but I'll set that aside.
Our legislation is about closing the legal loopholes that, right now, are incentivizing [illegal crossings and people] paying cartels, who are now profiting off of the business model, and allowing people to basically, then, take advantage of some loopholes we have in our laws.
For example, they know that if they show up with a kid that, based on a court settlement called the Flores agreement, we can only hold them for 20 days... It was a court case that talked about how DHS can only house unaccompanied minors for up to 20 days before they have to be transferred over to [the Department of Health and Human Services] obviously, and then make sure that they are put into a safe home. The individuals that they are released to are vetted.
So that was 20 days for unaccompanied minors, but under the Obama administration, that was then updated with an updated court settlement to include an adult with a kid. So prior to that, actually, the Obama administration was doing very different things to try and deal with what was happening at the border. They had a lot of particularly unaccompanied minors. But they did not see the adults with a child. So this change in this Flores settlement, saying that the 20 days also applies if you're an adult with a kid, is now incentivising, basically, take a kid with you, because they know that — regardless of whether you are trying to claim asylum or you are illegally crossing and you're apprehended — if you have a kid with you, you're going to be released within 20 days. So it's their ticket to basically be released into the interior of the United States, often without any charges filed against them, often with no court date to show up to, and some of them are also claiming asylum, and some of them are not. So this 20-day restriction of adults with children or minors themselves is one element of what is driving and incentivizing this mass influx from Central America, because they know if you've got a kid, you're let go. So we've got to close that loophole.
Our bill allows us to house families for up to 100 days, together, while their case is being processed, with 500 more immigration judges so that we can quickly begin with the process, the process of the illegitimate asylum claims. Those who are not legitimate, they need to be sent back, just like anyone else who has an illegitimate asylum claim. What's happening now is because there's so many coming in, they are being just released. Many of them who have said they are claiming asylum, they never show up to their court date. They go out and disappear. So until we stop the incentives, which a part of our bill does — we have processing centers that we propose to set up in Central America and Mexico for people to claim asylum. We need 500 more immigration judges, and then we are allowed to house a family unit for up to 100 days instead of the 20-day limit, which will give time for them to have due process. So that's generally what Senator Graham and I's proposals are. We're certainly open to any other ideas anyone has.
What we also need to do is fund the housing. This is one of the challenges we have. Often, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, when we come to budget discussions, they want to limit the number of what they call "retention beds" — what I would call housing for people that we are processing. We have to be able to house them somewhere in facilities that were intended to house people. The border patrol stations were not intended to house people. They were intended to process people and then transfer them to ICE or HSS or whatever other appropriate organization that would then have facilities to house people. But our colleagues on the other side of the aisle are constantly limiting the number of opportunities, spaces, for us to house people that have crossed here illegally.
So basically, if you think about it, they won't provide funding to actually provide physical security to the border. They won't close the loopholes. They won't provide the funding for the humane housing. So essentially, they just want anybody to be able to come, and let them go. Because that's the implication of not being for any of these reasonable things that I just mentioned.
What I am for is securing the border, closing the loopholes and providing enough funding for the housing, so that we can humanely and professionally house people while we process their claim. They have due process and then we send them back... if they don't have a legitimate claim.
Q: Why did you decide to vote yes on the federal budget?
A: Well I had to hold my nose to do so, but I was very much focused on the impact on our military over sequestration and the deep budget cuts that have happened over the last decade.
Our military has been in a readiness crisis for several years now while the world is more dangerous than I've seen in my lifetime. So we owe it to them that, if they're going to serve and sacrifice, that we give them what they need — the equipment, the training, the personnel, the support, the healthcare, and support for their families, and the predictability — so we're not playing games in D.C. with fits and starts and continuing resolutions and threats of government shutdowns. Provide that stability to our troops and their families, that we're going to give them what they need, and we're going to get them on a path to wellness, which is going to take several years... while investing in future capabilities that we need for future threats that are out there. So that was really my focus.
It's unfortunate that we've had a pattern where, in order to fund defense, again, we've had Democrat leadership… kind of holding defense hostage to raising spending in other areas. I feel that with a divided government — meaning a Democrat majority House and 60 votes in the Senate and a Republican president — that was the least worst option that they negotiated in order to provide the stability needed for our military and not defaulting on our debt as a country. It was the least worst option that we had to kind of agree to in order to provide that stability.
I'm very realistic. There's a lot of people that are in D.C. that are not realistic. They wish for other options that are not actually executable. They're not possible. Our Founding Fathers set up that you've got to get something to the House and the Senate and finally the president, and we need 60 votes in the Senate and we have a Democrat-controlled House, so you can't get everything you want. So you get the best of what you're fighting for, and at least stop the chaos and the uncertainty that Washington D.C. often brings, which is unfair for our military.
Q: What is it like to work with the two women that you ran against, Kelli Ward and Kyrsten Sinema?
A: Well Kelli, on the political side of course, is running the GOP, so that's on the campaign side. I'm here in my official capacity. But I appreciate the work that she's doing over there.
Kyrsten and I are working great together. I'm an athlete, right? So you go out in a game, you leave it all out field. There's sweat and blood sometimes and then at the end, you know, you high five. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Then, maybe you go out and get a beer after the game, right? So, you know, we had a tough campaign. She won, fair and square. I congratulated her and wished her the best, and then I was given the opportunity to be appointed, and so now we can both work on behalf of Arizona together. So it's about looking forward and not back, and we've been working on a lot of things together in Washington.
I don't take any of it personally. In general, in life, I'm like, look forward, not back. We now have an opportunity to serve and make a difference based on what's best for our Arizona.
We're not going to agree on everything, but where can we find that common ground and team up so that we have more strength working together on both sides of the aisle? Sometimes, we're going to really need some support on the other side of the aisle. We each bring attributes to help Arizona. In general, we're focused on serving Arizona. I still feel like the last campaign barely ended, so now is my opportunity... for the next year and a half to really make a difference in the lives of Arizonans.
My dad passed away actually 41 years ago today, and I'm very mindful — not just today but everyday — that life is a gift, and I want to make a difference with every day. When people are given the opportunity to ask whether you should stay or not, then you doing a good job is the best thing that you can do in order to make that case. So that's what I'm focused on right now.
Q: Is there anything that you would like to say to the people of Lake Havasu City?
A: Sure. Well, I would say to Mohave County in general, one of my first commitments was to visit all 15 counties. I mean, I came out during the campaign, but as a senator to get around... listen to the local communities, talk to the mayors. talk to people. I called it my Two Ears and One Mouth tour, used proportionally. Basically, just listening.
So we heard a number of issues. One was related to the land exchange that we made happen, and, you know, get across the finish line and sign it into law for Bullhead City. That was really important. It took an act of Congress to actually provide opportunity for economic development for the community. We made that happen.
The Drought Contingency Plan is something that is impactful, really for the whole state, with the Colorado River. So that took an act of Congress, and I worked with [Raul] Grijalva to speed that legislation through the Senate and the House. We still have more to do related to water for sure for this community at the federal, state, local level. We've got to partner together with tribal communities, as well, because water is our life, for us in Arizona.
Then, I heard about. the issues of wild burros. So I've actually brought that up in a committee hearing, making sure that specifically, we are talking about wild horse management. Wild burros have their own challenges and opportunities to manage them better. This is a public safety concern in this community. So really we're pushing on BLM to do more to address the wild burrow issue.
There's plenty of other opportunities, I think, for us to be a support here. We're having a health care roundtable today [Wednesday] talking about access to healthcare for everybody and also veterans as well.We're here, again, to listen, but also we've already delivered.
And there's one other thing – infrastructure. After the 15 county tour, I realized federal grants are so important to, especially, rural communities to get access to federal funds. And oftentimes, they don't have the same infrastructure on their staff as the larger cities have to understand how to navigate what grants are available and how do we ask for them. So I've actually hired on my staff, created a position, a full-time grant person, whose entire job is to coordinate with communities, to identify areas where there is appropriate federal funding that they could ask for, and then we put a grant letter of support on top of that. So we just recently submitted one for a BUILD grant, which is related to infrastructure. That's for a $25 million project.
Not everything is a federal government issue, but where there is a nexus or where there can be partnerships, where maybe some federal and some local and some state, we want to be able to build those partnerships. So that's one reason why we're back here today.