At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), we sit down with Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who gives his perspective on how to fix America’s broken immigration system. Securing the border must come before any discussion of amnesty, he says, otherwise, it signals to traffickers, or “coyotes,” that they can continue to abuse and traffic people across the border.
Jan Jekielek: We’re here with Congressman Byron Donalds, CPAC 2021. I know a big, big issue for you is the First Step Act and criminal justice reform. I want to go down a bit of a different path. It’s something I haven’t had a chance to talk about much yet, even though it’s a hot issue here at CPAC—immigration and the realities at the border. What are you seeing? What are you thinking right now?
Rep. Byron Donalds: What I’m seeing right now is that we’re going the exact wrong way when it comes to border security. Last December, Congress appropriated about $1.3 billion to finish wall construction. Congress appropriated it. Congress passed it. Nancy Pelosi voted for it. Joe Biden just said, he doesn’t want to do it anymore. It’s a major issue that strikes to the very core of our country about separation of powers. The executive branch has a responsibility to spend the funds that have been appropriated by Congress. That’s not happening right now. It’s a major concern.
The second thing is you have this evisceration of all enforcement policies so that they can be reviewed, which means they want to go in a completely different way. All that’s doing is signaling, unfortunately, to the coyotes, to the human traffickers that do live south of our border, that it’s okay to traffic people across our southern border into the United States.
If you bring COVID into it, how do we even know who has COVID and who does not? Have people gotten the necessary medical treatment where they’ve come from? Quite frankly, the answer is probably, most likely, no. They have not gotten the proper medical treatment. When America is in the situation that it is in right now, when we’re trying to recover, you don’t just open up the back door and you don’t just unwind our enforcement measures which have worked under the Trump administration.
One of the things that is mostly forgotten is that deportations were actually down under the Trump administration, compared to the Obama administration. Why is that? Because we actually followed the law under the Trump administration. We were serious about it, the coyotes knew it, the human traffickers knew it, and people who wanted to cross our border illegally, they knew it.
What we’re seeing right now is a complete evisceration of those policies that do work for the American people and for our country, while at the same time they’re proposing this massive immigration bill which is nothing more than a pathway to citizenship for 20 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Mr. Jekielek: What about your specific district? How does this shape up in your district?
Rep. Donalds: Specifically in my district, illegal immigration is not a hot button issue. I represent Southwest Florida, one of the great districts in the country. I will tell you that what does impact our community are visa overstays.
One of the big things in our immigration apparatus that must get fixed are visa overstays, and that people actually adhere to the visa that they sign when they come to the United States. The people in my district, what they want us to do is actually follow the law, follow the signs. They just want to follow the law. Is this what immigration law says? Yes—then do it. No more, no less. As long as we do that, it’s fine.
One of the actual implications we’re seeing is, our counties actually participate in a 2879(g) program. Under what Joe Biden is doing right now, the amount of people who go from our county jails over to the Homestead Avenue Detention Facility for deportation is going down from 60 inmates a week to 2 inmates a week. That’s a drastic burden on our sheriffs in my district and I’m quite sure on the sheriffs that participate in 287(g) across the United States.
Mr. Jekielek: We’ve been hearing a lot about basically, an increase of people coming across the border now, now that people are aware that the rules have changed, or the enforcement of the rules have changed. So this sort of thing is even affecting your district.
Rep. Donalds: It is. I think we’re going to see more of this. When you have, frankly, weakness in spite of the rule of law, it’s not just American citizens notice that. Everybody notices it. The world notices it. This is a tragedy, because, unfortunately, what the left wants to do is they want to legalize all illegal immigrants in the country. I think that’s a complete wrong way to go.
What we should do is secure our southern border, which President Trump was all the way, on the way, to doing. We should actually fix our visa system, we should fix the entry-exit problems that we have, we should actually modernize our green card system, modernize a lot of these different visa programs—do all that work. Do it. Get it done.
I think the American people, whether you’re liberal or conservative, will say, “Now that our immigration system is sound and modernized, and we’ve secured our country, now let’s take a look at the people who are here illegally, or let’s look at the kids who are here through no faults of their own, because now we’ve actually stopped the problem that has created these situations. We fixed those problems, now we can deal with the remnants of the problems.” The American people—we’re great people, we are good people, we’re beneficence people.
With those people who are here working hard, doing those things that they should be doing just as good neighbors and good people, we would put them on [their] pathway to citizenship. The way they’re trying to do it is, they want to do the pathway first without fixing any of the issues, and all that will do is lead to more problems in the future. That doesn’t work.
Mr. Jekielek: What happens to the so-called dreamers, the young people? We’re in an uncertain state for a while and we don’t know exactly how this is all going to play out. What happens to them?
Rep. Donalds: The dreamers continue to be a political football—that’s what happens to them. It’s truly unfortunate. It’s nearly a tragedy. In the Biden plan now, if you are brought to the United States and you’re under the age of 18 by January 1 of this year, now you’re a dreamer. The old definition that Obama put in, that was back—a youth is brought in through no fault of their own—in 2014.
So all we’re doing is pushing, kicking the can down the road, and broadening the issues that we’re creating for ourselves here in the United States. That does not work. We have to get serious about fixing our immigration issues and not play politics with it, and that’s what will happen to the dreamers. They’ll continue to be the political football of the left. Their issues actually won’t get addressed in the appropriate way that actually can take care of their issues, while also respecting American citizenship and American children here.
Mr. Jekielek: Given this Congress and this administration, what do you expect you can do to forward your idea of sound immigration policy at this point?
Rep. Donalds: In this Congress—nothing. Nancy Pelosi will never let it get heard, because for her, what she wants is this monstrosity of an immigration bill that they’re going to push that we’re going to have to debate in the House of Representatives. I’m going to bring amendments to that bill. I’m going to be talking more and more about this bill as time goes by.
They’re not interested in Republican ideas. We’ve just seen that with this COVID relief bill that we voted on last night. They don’t want to hear from us. They want to ram it through and just let whatever happens, happen.
The pathway to actually fixing immigration in our country is possible, but we have to have honest conversations with ourselves, we’ve got to have honest brokers, frankly, on both sides of the aisle, because we can come to a solution that actually respects citizenship in our country and actually creates a stable legal immigration process in our country. In order to do that, you got to stop playing politics and actually do the right thing on behalf of our country first and on behalf of our people.
Mr. Jekielek: Talking about doing the right thing, you have been a big proponent of criminal justice reform and I know you’re a supporter of the First Step Act. Of course, as everyone that I’ve ever interviewed about the First Step Act [knows], it was just the first step. So again, we’re in this very different Congress, very different administration. What happens next?
Rep. Donalds: I think we have those conversations about probation reforms, making sure that when there are these technical violations in probation, they don’t result in people getting massive, extended times on their sentence. I’m talking [about] things like you missed curfew, talking [about] things like how you missed one of your probation appointments.
These technical violations, should there be a penalty? Yes, there should be a penalty, but the way the system currently works, there’s a massive penalty. And then people do feel like they’re behind the eight ball, so what’s the point? Does that make sense? I think there are pathways to do that.
One of the other big pathways is actually in job training programs, helping people to get credentialed, the things that are essential to take you from, frankly, criminal back to citizen again. One of the things we have to always remember when it comes to our criminal justice system is that it’s a government program like any other. So we know it doesn’t work as smoothly as we might think it’s supposed to
Number two, we have to understand that the people who are incarcerated or who are on probation right now, they are still Americans. At some point, if our system is successful, there has to be a conduit and a pathway that brings them back to being citizens, and productive citizens once more.
Mr. Jekielek: We have to finish up now. It’s such a pleasure to speak with you, Congressman Donalds.
Rep. Donalds: Thank you for having me, anytime. Let’s do it again.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.