Central Coast congressman named 'Great Immigrant,' visits border detention camp

Jul 6, 2018

Every Fourth of July, the Carnegie Corporation of New York releases a list of "Great Immigrants," people the philanthropic organization says have made notable contributions to the "progress of American society." This year’s list includes singer Regina Spektor, actor Kumail Nanjiani, the CEO of Uber, a UC Santa Barbara Nobel Prize winner in physics, and U.S. Congressman Salud Carbajal. 

Carbajal represents the 24th congressional district, which encompasses Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, as well as a portion of Ventura County. Carbajal’s family immigrated from Mexico.

KCBX News spoke with Carbajal on Independence Day to discuss issues surrounding the current state of immigration in the United States. The congressman recently toured the Tornillo detention facility near the El Paso port of entry in Texas where migrant children separated from their parents are being held.

Below is the original transcript of an interview taped Wednesday, July 4, 2018. An abridged version aired on KCBX on July 5, 2018. The full interview is scheduled to air during KCBX's Issues & Ideas on July 11, 2018.

TYLER PRATT, KCBX News: Congressman, thank you for speaking with us. You were just named by the Carnegie Corporation as one of this year's "Great Immigrants." Can you tell us a little bit about this honor?

SALUD CARBAJAL, U.S Congressman, 24th District: Well, I'm obviously very humbled by this honor, for being recognized amongst 38 individuals throughout the country that are naturalized immigrants, naturalized citizens to this country. And when you look at all the things those other individuals have accomplished, I'm just very humbled to be included amongst them. I reflect back on my parents journey to this country with me as a young boy, immigrating to this country, and all the hardship and struggles that they went through to make sure that their family had the opportunities that this country provides so that we could reach the American Dream. And whether it was getting a good education, whether it was serving my country in the United States Marine Corps, or serving in local government and now in Congress, I'm just very humbled and grateful for the opportunities that my parents provided me and that this country has given me over the years.

PRATT: This recognition comes at a time when issues surrounding immigration in our country are front and center. For anyone that doesn't know, your family immigrated here from Mexico. Can you take a moment and talk about the kind of conversations you and your family are having recently, given all the news at the border.

CARBAJAL: Obviously my family, like other families—not just those of Mexican descent—but families from all walks of life and different backgrounds are having conversations right now about the tragic turn our country has taken when it comes to public policy regarding immigration, and the terrible things that this administration is doing in separating families and really aggressively enforcing immigration laws beyond those that have criminal records or have committed crimes. They are aggressively now separating families not only at the border, but here in the United States. And it's very disheartening and very discouraging to see this administration go in that direction.

PRATT: Well, let's talk about that for a second. Last week you toured the Tornillo detention facility near the El Paso port of entry in Texas, where migrant children have been separated from their parents and are being held. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience being there?

CARBAJAL: Yes. I went to the Tornillo detention center, where they're keeping unaccompanied minors, including minors that were separated from their families, that we have heard about in the news in recent weeks. There's a contractor that the government has contracted with to provide for the detention and the care of these children. And while they're providing a basic level of care, it's far from the adequate conditions that we would like to see children housed in. These children are housed out in the middle of the desert where it's really, really hot. They're only given ten to 15 minutes of recreation at a time, maybe twice a day, because it's so hot and miserable. They are woken up at five a.m. in a regimented fashion [and] run through the showers for a quick shower of less than five minutes. And again, while they're getting a basic level of care, this is no type of condition that we want to have our children in. It's basically violating their human rights.

Once, we were the country that held ourselves to high standards when it came to human rights and now we have lost some of that moral high ground because of the approach and tactics that this administration is taking. It's hard to now look at other countries and say, "Hey, treat those seeking asylum and immigration and sheltering in your countries with care and human dignity and human rights," when our country itself is not doing that anymore.

PRATT: You painted a really upsetting portrait of conditions for the children there. Did you speak to any of them while you were there?

CARBAJAL: I did. And the three things I mentioned are the three things that they told me, about being woken up at 5 a.m. in a regimented fashion, rushed through showers and not given recreation. Very little recreation, I should say. So, all day they spend in an auditorium, paying board games and card games, very little education materials. It is really, really a daunting environment and one that we should not be housing children under.

PRATT: You said that part of your reason for going is to question officials at the border about their strategy to reunite the thousands of children that have been separated from their parents. What did you learn?

CARBAJAL: Well, I learned a number of things. First I saw the conditions firsthand at the detention center. But then when I went to the border, I actually talked to the immigration officials. I saw that some children had been there three days, going on more than three days. And I spoke to two of them in particular, and they shared with me that one of them was on their third day. So, I talked to the immigration officials who confirmed that they routinely violate the three-day rule they have for keeping children there at the detention center, because the Health and Human Services Department isn't coordinating effectively to be able to place and house these children in appropriate conditions or appropriate shelters. So, in essence, we have a crisis that has been developed by this administration. And instead of now trying to reunite families they don't even know how to reunite families. They don't even know where all the children are at. This administration created a crisis, a needless crisis, and now is trying to fix it, as I understand it. But they have no plan, no details and we have these children in limbo as to where they're going when they are going to be reunited with their families. And this administration is really just in a chaotic crisis situation.

PRATT: So what is currently being done in Congress to resolve this situation?

CARBAJAL: I have co-sponsored the "Keeping Families Together Act" with other members of Congress. But if this leadership—Republican leadership—in Congress doesn't move that legislation forward, then we won't see anything come out of Congress. This Congress has been complicit. This Republican Congress has been complicit with this president in creating this crisis and now not moving forward legislation that would fix this crisis and prevent this administration from separating children from families.

PRATT: That goes to my next question. Do you think we'll see actual results from Congress in the coming weeks or months even?

CARBAJAL: Based on the lack of action and willingness by this Republican majority in Congress, I don't have much hope that they will move forward. There's important legislation that I have co-sponsored. Regrettably, I think this Congress has been complicit with this administration. This is too where we've come from with our country with this administration in place, and this Republican majority in Congress that's in place.

PRATT: Over the weekend, there were many rallies and protests across the country and opposition to how the U.S. is handling immigration at the border. There were many demands to "abolish ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]." Is that a realistic call to action? What needs to be done?

CARBAJAL: I think we need to look at the enforcement tactics and actions that ICE has been taking to ensure that they are humane and to ensure that they are being done, with that in mind. What we need is comprehensive immigration reform. But I will tell you that rushing to abolish ICE or not is not really the conversation because there's always going to be an agency of some type doing this type of work in terms of securing our borders.

I think the conversation is twofold. One, we need to make sure that we are not violating human rights when it comes to immigration laws as a country, and we've got to stop this administration from doing that. And secondly, we can have a broader conversation as to the enforcement actions of ICE or any agency who is carrying out those regulations and those laws so that they are done in a humane fashion.

PRATT: It could be said that we're living in this time in America where it feels widely divided, and coincidentally, you and I are speaking on our national holiday. Congressman, what's your impression of the country as a whole right now?

CARBAJAL: Well, certainly this administration has just divided and polarized our country like no other administration that we've seen. This administration has chosen to come after women and women's reproductive rights. They've come after the LGBTQ community. They've come after minorities. They have done everything to stop people from coming to this country because of their religious status and beliefs. This administration has come after the Latino community by calling them rapists and criminals. This administration has done everything possible to divide us as a country. And it's really, really unfortunate. We are better than this. We will survive this administration and hopefully in a couple of years when this administration is done and over with, we will get back to healing in continuing to move in a direction that is inclusive, that brings us together as a country and reminds us that our country is great because of immigrants over the years and over the centuries.

PRATT: I should mention that you seeking re-election this fall. Is there anything you would like to add that we do not cover?

CARBAJAL: No. I just really appreciate you shedding light on this important issue. Shedding light on the fact that this administration has been callous and cruel, and has been outright just racist and discriminatory. And we need to take our country back and make sure that these horrific policies—that divide us and come after immigrants the way they have been—stops.

PRATT: Congressman Salud Carbajal, thank you so much for joining us today.

CARBAJAL: Thank you.