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GOP Sen. Ron Johnson Discusses What He Thinks Are Solutions To Immigration


Eight hundred U.S. troops are headed to the U.S.-Mexico border. The Trump administration is sending them to assist with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, this as a caravan of about a thousand migrants tries to make its way to that border. That caravan and how the U.S. should respond have become a central issue in the quickly approaching midterms.


We're going to dig into this with Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee. And we reached him in Racine, Wis., today.

Senator Johnson, welcome. And good to speak with you.

RON JOHNSON: Hello, Mary Louise. How are you doing?

KELLY: I am all right. Thank you.

But I want to start with the immediate situation on the border, which, as you know, President Trump is calling a national emergency. In your mind, is it?

JOHNSON: Well, it's certainly troubling that we have created incentives in our immigration system. It's partly because we literally reward illegal immigration. What we really need to have is a legal immigration system that works and where there are consequences for illegal immigration.

KELLY: And I want to get to some of your ideas for fixing the system writ large. But just to drill down on what exactly is unfolding in Mexico as this so-called caravan makes its way north, Mexican officials say we're talking 3,000 to 4,000 people, that they are a thousand miles from the U.S. border. So let me press you. Is it a national emergency, as the president says it is?

JOHNSON: Well, I don't know why he'd call it a national emergency. But again, what is a national emergency is the multi-year flood of individuals coming from Central America, is unaccompanied children and now it's family units incentivized by laws we have passed, by legal precedent and loopholes that, again, reward people coming into this country illegally because, once they get here, our legal system allows them to stay.

KELLY: In the interest of sorting fact from fiction, a couple of questions - to your knowledge, Senator, are unknown Middle Easterners part of this caravan and marching toward the U.S. border?

JOHNSON: I don't know about this caravan. But I know when I toured the Northern Triangle countries with then-Southern Command General Kelly, I heard a new term I'd never heard before, SIAs, special interest aliens.

KELLY: When was this?

JOHNSON: And that - that was back in, probably about 2014, 2015. And I'd never heard the term special interest alien. And it really did refer to Middle Easterners - you know, other than Mexican, other than Central American immigrants. And we've been tracking that. Now, truthfully, it's a relatively low number. It's in the hundreds as opposed to - we're dealing with tens of thousands of people coming in from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

KELLY: You would not disagree, though, that it's important to deal with the facts as they are in 2018.


KELLY: So I just...

JOHNSON: I'm definitely a very fact-based individual, absolutely.

KELLY: Of course.

JOHNSON: So again...

KELLY: So yes or no, any evidence of Middle Easterners in this caravan...

JOHNSON: No, I said...

KELLY: ...That's in the headlines today?

JOHNSON: ...I do not have any specific evidence in this caravan. But it wouldn't surprise me if there were some.

KELLY: Let me fact-check a second claim with you. President Trump has suggested that Democrats are somehow involved with instigating this caravan. Let me play you what he said.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Democrats want caravans. They like the caravans. A lot of people say, I wonder who started that caravan.

KELLY: That's President Trump speaking five days ago. Senator, is there evidence to support that Democrats somehow started this caravan?

JOHNSON: Well, they certainly are not helping us change the laws so we can end these incentives. I mean, let's face it. Some of them, their solution is supporting sanctuary cities, which is another incentive for people to come to this country legally. And a lot of them want to abolish ICE, which would be completely counterproductive.

KELLY: I do want to get to the policy changes that you feel are needed. But let me just, before we move on from this, ask you the direct question that is on some people's minds, that this so-called caravan is a manufactured controversy drummed up to energize Republican voters before the midterms.

JOHNSON: I have no evidence of that whatsoever. Again, what I've read about is this occurred in Honduras. There are people opposed to President Hernandez down there. And in some way, shape or form, that's how this all got started. But that's just what I've heard - read in news reports.

KELLY: Let me ask you about Congress' role in trying to fix this. Are you optimistic that something will happen in this next term when Congress wasn't able to get it done these last two years?

JOHNSON: Well, part of my problem as chairman of Homeland Security, most of these laws aren't under my committee's jurisdiction. We've got it under my committee's jurisdiction because Senate Judiciary wasn't able to move forward. And working with my colleagues, I got their agreement that I could start handling this. So I'm trying to go through this as a businessperson would, a problem-solver - gather the information, find the areas of agreement. In our committee, you know, we all agree we want to secure the border, that we have to have reasonable asylum standards that are maintained, that we want to enforce our laws and that we don't separate families. So trying to go through a problem-solving process very transparent, very open, very detailed - and see if we just can't fix one aspect of this. And then maybe success will breed success.

KELLY: Senator, thanks so much for your time

JOHNSON: Have a great day.

KELLY: That's Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson. We reached him in Racine, Wis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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