U.S. Representative Mark DeSaulnier recently held a series of town hall meetings in which he laid out his positions on border enforcement, immigration and the caustic dialogue recently surrounding those issues. His kickoff speaking engagement came at a town hall meeting in Concord, the East Bay city he represented as mayor about 25 years ago.
The meeting took place in a sweltering, dimly lit auditorium at the Meadow Homes Elementary School in a vibrant, largely Hispanic suburban neighborhood. There were teenagers and vendors outside in an adjacent park, some of them speaking Spanish.
A half-dozen tables were set up near the entry, and volunteers were handing out fliers for things like citizenship workshops and a 24-hour hotline for reporting immigration raids. People in the crowd were using those papers as fans in the late summer heat while DeSaulnier clicked through a PowerPoint presentation aimed in part at putting current events into some kind of historical context.
“We’ve had ugly fights in this country over immigration,” the congressman said. “The way we got through it was to have a more rational conversation and get things to temper down.”
DeSaulnier traced his own immigrant roots back to England, by way of Massachusetts. He points out that despite places like Angel Island and Ellis Island screening incoming immigrants for public health threats like tuberculosis, the U.S. had mostly open borders at one point, and this would be a very different country if not for early waves of European immigration.
There were, however, also times where this country historically sought to discourage Jewish immigrants as well as Eastern Europeans, the Irish and the Chinese — among others.
Immigration is a net benefit for the U.S. though, according to DeSaulnier’s statistics. They added $2 billion to the gross domestic product in 2016, and they have started quite a few Fortune 500 companies.
Economics notwithstanding, taking in people from all over the world is part of our national heritage, but DeSaulnier said there is currently a bottleneck in the immigration system. Aspects of the crisis he has seen on border trips to Southern California and Texas could be addressed with additional resources.
“We need more judges, we need more courtrooms, we need more border patrol,” DeSaulnier said. “One of the problems is that when they go to the port of entry there are so few people to process them.”
Voters from both sides of the political aisle were present at the Concord event, including a small group wearing Make America Great Again hats or shirts identifying themselves as supporters of President Donald Trump.
The representative’s staffers handed out question cards, reading them into a microphone on stage and somebody asked, “Why not secure the border?”
Applause went up from about a dozen people in two or three clusters in the audience, and the congressman waited a second before responding.
“I’ve never heard a member of congress say that we should have open borders,” DeSaulnier said. “That’s not the question. The question is how best to do it.”
“Building a wall, from an engineering standpoint, is not the best way to secure the border,” he said. “It’s a political metaphor.”
The congressman indicated he would, however, support a national effort to consult with experts on the matter to identify effective alternatives.
Trump has recently made news with talk of ending “birthright citizenship,” for the children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents, and that was also discussed.
“The next year and a half is going to be really interesting for this country.”
He compared the heated rhetoric and sporadic but increasingly lethal violence seen around the issue of immigration in recent years to past national crises, at one point even mentioning the civil war, saying that in the past, “when things got ugly was when we spent too much time screaming at each other rather than listening.”
Someone wanted to know how to stop collaboration between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local law enforcement officials like Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston, who recently confirmed to the Board of Supervisors that his office cooperated with ICE agents on 105 cases in 2018, nearly all of which involved deportation proceedings against Hispanic men.
When chastised by immigration advocates at that meeting in July, Livingston doubled down on his position, saying his job is to protect Contra Costa County families and that he would continue to do that “in whatever way (he feels) is appropriate under the law.”
DeSaulnier told constituents unhappy with that aspect of Livingston’s leadership to bring their complaints to the Board of Supervisors, and to vote.
“He’s elected, and he runs every four years,” he said. “You have to hold him accountable. That’s how the system works.”
Some of the questions were complicated. There were immigrants in the room, and some made it clear that recent events have them on edge. Someone asked what to do about anti-immigrant violence.
“If you’re exposed to anything like that please call our office right away,” he said. “We’ve had to deal with a number of these and the Concord PD has been really good about it.”
They also asked about uncertainty over applying for immigration and refugee status during the Trump administration’s nationwide crackdown.
“You should come to our office and we’ll help you through the process,” DeSaulnier said.
Those offices are located on the second floor of 440 Civic Center Plaza in Richmond, at city hall, and at 3100 Oak Road, Suite 110 in Walnut Creek. His staff can be reached at 510-620-1000 and 925-933-2660.
DeSaulnier held two more town hall meetings, in Moraga and Antioch, before traveling back to Washington, D.C. at the end of the House’s August recess.
DeSaulnier is in his third term representing California’s 3rd District. He was reelected by a landslide, 74 percent to 26, against Republican challenger John Fitzgerald in 2018.
According to Open Secrets, a research organization that publishes campaign finance information online, most of the contributions DeSaulnier has received so far in the 2019-2020 election cycle are from unions, and about 67 percent of the money came from political action committees or other candidate committees. More information about that is available at https://bit.ly/2HkQ54y.