During a Friday morning press conference at her downtown Seattle office, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal briefed reporters on a fact-finding mission she took to the southern border last week. At a border crossing in Tijuana, she witnessed a migration crisis rife with completely avoidable chaos, bureaucratic chicanery, and heartbreaking scenes of women and unaccompanied minors holed up in shelters, waiting to apply for asylum or to migrate for economic reasons.
Jayapal said the majority of people attempting to cross were from Honduras, though some had traveled from Haiti and as far as Cameroon. She said they weren't trying to achieve the American dream so much as they were trying to flee "reigns of terror."
"I have a 21-year-old, and I sat there talking to these kids who are 16 and 17-years-old with gunshots—" Jayapal said, choking up on that last word. "I don't know how we're doing this."
Though the President and Republicans crow about the migrant "invasion" at the border, Mexican authorities told Jayapal that both countries have managed the kinds of numbers they're now seeing at ports of entry before. It's just that the U.S. effort to slow down the asylum-seeking process is causing a pile-up of migrants and refugees on the Mexican side of the border, which is creating situations that are particularly cruel to children.
"It was clear to me that this is not a crisis that needs to be there, this is a crisis that has been manufactured," Jayapal said.
On the trip, she used her power as a member of Congress to help five people exercise their legal right to apply for asylum. One of the people she said she helped was a mother with three young children. The woman told Jayapal that she watched a soldier in the Honduran military kill her husband. Another woman, reportedly over 7 months pregnant, was fleeing her former partner, a Honduran soldier who threatened to kill her.
Working with Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit that connects refugees with legal services, Jayapal said she followed the group of asylum-seekers to a port of entry.
Initially, she said she stood behind them and their attorney so she could observe their interaction with the border patrol agents. But when border patrol turned them all away, Jayapal began to intervene, which initiated an "hours-long process."
After the agent told Jayapal the port didn't have space to hold the asylum-seekers, she asked to see the processing space. When the agent said they were technically on Mexican soil, which meant that they couldn't even technically apply for asylum in the first place, she said she called out the technicality as "ridiculous." When the agent told her she had no right to demand answers to her questions, she then identified herself as a member of Congress who did, in fact, have the right to demand answers to these questions.
At that point, Jayapal said, the agent took the two unaccompanied minors. When it became clear that he wasn't coming back for the others, Jayapal more or less asked to speak to his manager. After a meeting with the head of the port, she was able to help get the last three people in. She said she stayed long enough to say goodbye to the group as they went to submit their requests for asylum.
"They were weeping—a 9-year-old girl who was just weeping—and at the same time they looked like the sun had just come out," Jayapal said. "And this young man, who was 27, who had been beaten in Honduras, who had serious medical issues—I thought he was never going to let me go."
Jayapal also expressed sympathy for the border patrol agents. "With all the money we've put into the border, we haven't put it in the right places," she said. "They need bigger facilities there to process people, they have needed that for a long time. They need more agents to process people, more immigration officers. There are some needs at the border, it's just not the wall."
"And I gotta believe," Jayapal added. "I just have to believe this is an untenable situation for them. That they don't want to be tear gassing mothers and children."
Jayapal traveled on "a Congressional Delegation trip of one," accompanied by the U.S. Consul General to Mexico and security. She said she invited Reps Juan Vargas (CA-51), Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA-40), and Joaquin Castro (TX-20), but they couldn't swing it on such short notice. Jayapal had admittedly only put the trip together in two days.
When asked why she didn't invite members of the Washington Democratic Congressional Delegation, all of whom have railed against the Trump administration's border policies in one way or another, Jayapal said she "wasn't responsible for the rest of the delegation" and encouraged them to go down to the border "to see what's happening on their own."
Jayapal also talked about her plans for the 116th Congress, which will start up in early January with a healthy Democratic majority. Pointing to her op-ed in the New York Review of Books, Jayapal advised Democrats to "recapture America’s moral imagination on immigration." It turns out there are good and pretty simple ways to fix our immigration system, and they don't involve gassing toddlers. Jayapal says she wants to bring back Family Case Management support systems for asylum seekers, raise the cap on worker visas, "sing strongly the benefits of family immigration," dedicate funds to help immigrants "learn to speak English (while preserving their own languages) and obtain the skills and training they need to realize their talents," and attack the root cause of the problem through diplomacy. She also wants to put forth a clean DREAM Act and work to shield Temporary Protected Status from Trump's executive orders.
However, with a Republican-led Senate and an unindicted co-conspirator to multiple felonies in the Oval Office, Jayapal doesn't hold out much hope for legislative success in the next session.
As a member of the Judiciary Committee, though, she plans to get some work done in the oversight department. She said she has an "extremely long" list of questions for immigration officials and members of the Trump administration. She wants to know which laws were broken or bent in the effort to enact the family separation policy. She wants to know how much money we spent needlessly deploying over 5,000 troops to the southern border during Thanksgiving. She also wants to take a closer look at the administration's decision to divert $10 million in disaster relief money to fund ICE detention centers in the middle of hurricane season. She said she "hopefully won't have to use subpoena power" to force officials to testify, but she has no problem doing so if necessary.