Congresswoman Susan W. Brooks

Representing the 5th District of Indiana
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Tully: Is there common ground on immigration? Yes

Sep 14, 2015
In The News

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks sat in her Capitol Hill office late Wednesday afternoon and said that despite all the evidence to the contrary, there is a clear path forward on the issue of immigration reform.

It’s out there, she insisted. The common ground — it’s out there.

It’s just being trampled and overshadowed by all the rhetoric, by the demand for a silver-bullet bill that magically takes care of everything, and by political leaders on both sides of he aisle who just haven’t had the will to take on the issue in a serious and practical way.

“We can’t get to a constructive, rational debate,” Brooks told me, adding: “It’s complex. It will be tough. But I believe there is common ground.”

I do, too. And all sorts of polls in recent years have made that clear. But passing legislation based on the common ground is hard at a time when the two parties have largely lost the ability to find bipartisan solutions to the big challenges facing the country, and when harsh partisanship shouts down anything that smells like a compromise on this issue.

Brooks, a Republican from Carmel, said the debate is frustrating. She criticized President Obama for not doing enough to convene a conversation on the issue, and she said she has repeatedly, and without success, urged GOP leaders in Congress to move forward on a range of immigration bills.

“Let’s vote on it,” she said. “Let’s put bills up. Let’s start the discussion and debate.”

Watch the 2016 presidential race, though, and it’s easy to understand the problem. Simplistic ideas rule the day. Candidates have risen on the GOP side by acting as if you can build a wall and solve a problem. Brooks said she hears frequently from voters who support nothing short of mass deportation. (I can only imagine what she hears — nothing fills my inbox with angry emails like the columns I write about immigration.)

As we talked, Brooks carefully laid out her position, surely aware of the political hits other Republicans have taken for offering rational ideas on this issue. She didn’t bash Donald Trump, though she did dismiss his suggestion that he has singlehandedly forced this issue to the forefront of American discourse. She said there could be a need for a wall “in places,” but talked much more thoughtfully about increasing the amount of resources and technology available to protect America’s borders.

And then she offered some doses of realism.

First, she said, we need to accept that attacking this problem in “small bites” is the way to go. The demand for an all-or-nothing package has led Congress to one stalemate after another.

“Immigration reform is necessary,” she said. “But the immigration issue is complex. It is not wise to fix it in one big bill. I don’t see, for instance, how you tie the issues with the border into the same bill dealing with the issues of high-tech workers. ... Over time, if we can start to resolve some of these issues in smaller bites we will get to a more effective and fairer system.”

That doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Let’s build a big wall!” and “No amnesty!” but it’s much more sensible and far more likely to lead to smart improvements.

Brooks, a former federal prosecutor, talked tough at times. People who arrived in this country as adults and have committed felonies “need to go,” she said. “We don’t need more criminals.” A stronger control of the border is vital, she added. Like many Republicans, she criticizes “sanctuary cities,” and she accused the president of inflaming the issue with the executive steps he has taken.

But she said America is hurting itself by not sensibly addressing the workforce needs of the agricultural industry, as well as high-tech fields that would benefit by a streamlined visa system. And when I asked about those who were brought to this country illegally as children she offered the kind of words we need to hear more often from Republican leaders.

“I struggle with the fact that young people who were brought here by their parents, who were educated by our schools, who have hopefully been pledging allegiance to our flag — I struggle with (the idea of) sending them back to a country they don’t know,” she said.

Brooks said she hears often about immigration while traveling her district. And while plenty of voters call for mass deportations, she said “there is more of a shift toward resolving the problem and (understanding that) we can’t deport 11 million people.” She also noted that the young people she meets “are growing up in a more diverse school system than their parents and grandparents did, so they have a very different view on immigration.”

The truth is, there is a common ground on immigration. It’s out there. It supports measures such as a path to citizenship for those who have done the right thing since coming here. It supports stronger border controls. It supports empathy for those who were brought here as children. It supports making America stronger by using immigration to address our workforce needs.

“We have to figure out a way to have an efficient and a just immigration system,” Brooks said. “Because we are hurting everyone with this broken immigration system.”

The bottom line is this: There are a lot of people scoring points by selling simplistic solutions to this incredibly complex problem. Brooks isn’t one of them. Instead, she’s calling for old-fashioned political pragmatism.

That might not sell bumper stickers. But it is how you fix problems.

You can reach me at matthew.tully@indystar.com or a Twitter.com/matthewltully.

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