Democratic congressional candidate Kara Eastman says she doesn’t want to abolish ICE. She has not joined a political movement that embraces the elimination of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
She says she would rather see Congress rein in the agencies enforcing immigration law, including ICE and Customs and Border Protection, the agency that detains people crossing the border without permission.
“The policy is the problem right now,” Eastman said. The people carrying out President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy at ICE and elsewhere don’t deserve the blame for separating families, she says. Policymakers do.
On several basic principles of immigration enforcement, Eastman sounds at times like her opponent in the Omaha-area race to represent Nebraska’s 2nd District, Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican.
Both candidates emphasize that national security needs to know who is coming into the United States and why. Both say ICE performs important work, including investigations of human trafficking. Both say people who dislike how the administration is enforcing the law should work to change the law.
Both also say they want federal immigration authorities to treat people fleeing their home countries humanely. And both say they want families crossing the border together to stay together until their cases are addressed.
But listen closer, and differences on the issue poke through.
Bacon, for example, supports Trump’s expanded border wall. Eastman opposes it.
Eastman says Americans should discuss whether federal law should “criminalize” or penalize people crossing the U.S. border to seek a better life.
Bacon, who has supported comprehensive immigration overhaul bills that included accepting higher numbers of legal immigrants, says no country can afford to accept all comers, citing the strain on public services.
Bacon argues that a country without strict enforcement of the laws governing its borders isn’t much of a country at all. He voted last week against a Democratic-led measure to abolish ICE.
Many progressives in the Democratic Party have said ICE and other federal immigration enforcement agencies have been tainted by how the Trump administration uses them and therefore need to be abolished. Some expected Eastman to join them. She did not.
Clarifying the mission and scope of those federal agencies, Eastman says, should be accomplished with a combination of legislative oversight and law. Her aim: setting appropriate expectations and limits.
Eastman says she can’t stand the idea of families living in glorified prisons along the border for weeks or months while waiting for their asylum-seeking cases to be adjudicated.
“If our goal is to criminalize people coming into this country, then we need to stand firm in our laws, but be humane,” Eastman said.
She sees it as a moral imperative that immigration authorities find a viable way to monitor families crossing the border so they can be released together into the U.S. but return for immigration-related hearings.
Bacon calls that wishful thinking, citing Department of Homeland Security statistics showing that thousands of people detained and released near the border during the Obama administration never showed back up for court.
“If you release families, they never come back,” he said. “There has to be some way to hold families together.”
He supports building more facilities at the border to hold families.
Eastman says she wants Congress to act separately from other immigration negotiations to address the issue of young people in the legal limbo of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily legalized them.
Bacon, too, says DACA participants need legal certainty but says the issue should be part of compromise legislation that also addresses border security and legal immigration. The GOP must not let “perfect be the enemy of good,” he says.
Both Eastman and Bacon agree that the rhetoric on immigration enforcement has spiraled out of control. Each mentioned the recent vandalism of the state Republican Party headquarters as going too far. It should be possible to discuss these issues without demonizing your opponent, they said.
Both said people should understand the value that immigrants add to Nebraska communities: the entrepreneurial spirit, the willingness to work hard, the sense of community.
Immigration enforcement appears to be the rare issue in this race where the candidates are close in tone, if not policy, said Paul Landow, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Bacon is tilted a little left of his party on the issue, Landow said, and Eastman’s position is more measured than some Republican caricatures of her. That leaves immigration-focused voters with a tougher decision.