President Donald Trump’s desire to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and his travel ban have gotten plenty of news coverage.

But the Republican-led Congress is also integral to creating immigration policy, and it’s started to move forward on several bills in the last few weeks that would penalize states and individuals that don’t aid federal efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants.

One, the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, would withhold federal law enforcement grants to sanctuary cities. Kate’s Law, named after a San Francisco woman killed by an undocumented man, would increase penalties for undocumented immigrants who were previously deported.

Those measures will have to get through the Senate, where California Sen. Kamala Harris has quickly become an outspoken opponent of Republicans’ immigration policies.

The former state attorney general introduced as her very first legislative effort in the Senate a bill that “would provide access to lawyers for anyone held or detained while trying to enter the United States,” according to USA Today.

In her first Senate floor speech, she emphasized her experience navigating immigration and criminal justice issues in California: “As a prosecutor, I can tell you, it is a serious mistake to conflate criminal justice policy with immigration policy as if they are the same thing. They are not,” she said.

Harris answered five big border and immigration questions via email last week.

On the topic of waiving polygraph tests for border agents: What is the most immediate problem that you see? From the standpoint of a reporter who focuses on humanitarian issues, I personally worry about opportunistic people with violent histories brutalizing the defenseless. I’ve heard many stories. But there’s also the issue of cartels infiltrating border agencies and getting access to sensitive information. What mechanisms would, or should, be in place for that possibility?

Harris: This administration has proclaimed ‘the shackles are off’ with regards to CBP and ICE, and there has been an increasing number of reports of emboldened officers engaged in unlawful actions, and misconduct such as the excessive use of force and illegally turning away asylum-seekers. Now is not the time to in any way to loosen hiring standards so that the president and [Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly] can rush to build a deportation force. We must be judicious and measured in our approach. If potential hires for Border Patrol agents program can’t meet the standards, we shouldn’t lower the standards to get a larger number who can meet them. Given CBP’s past struggles with corruption cases, we know the polygraph is needed to ensure both workforce integrity and safety.

California’s stance on immigration has been mostly in opposition to the Trump administration’s, which seems to be predicated on principles laid down by groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which started as a “population control” group dedicated to “preserving a Euro-American majority,” in the words of its founder, John Tanton.  Is there a specific direction that you hope the state takes? What would it take to bring the federal government on board with what California does, in your view?

Harris: This administration’s immigration policies create a culture of fear – and so we have to stand up in California and fight for who we are as a country and our ideals. We must also come together as Democrats and Republicans in Congress and produce bipartisan solutions to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. I’m proud to work on efforts like the BRIDGE Act with Republicans Sens. [Lindsey] Graham and [Lisa| Murkowski, which would protect DREAMers.

What is your stance on the Adelanto Detention Facility and other private prisons that are being used to detain people who are either awaiting their deportation hearing or just passing the time? A group of people seeking asylum in the United States has been detained since the beginning of May with no hearing, and they just began a hunger strike at Adelanto. Does the state have any power to at least get them hearings? 

Harris: I stand firmly opposed to private prisons. The private prison industry utilizes a business model that reaps profit from incarcerating people. Instead of creating incentives to house people in prison, we should be creating incentives to shut the revolving door into prison. Sen. [Tom] Carper and I sent a letter to DHS Secretary Kelly requesting information about ICE detention facilities and the use of private prisons, potential review of ICE-operated private facilities and current statistics on the number of officers, detainees and facilities under ICE-operated private facilities. We noted that DHS’s new immigration enforcement priorities raise concerns that DHS will rely even more heavily on these private detention facilities.

Additionally, in a letter to the Senate Committee on Appropriations on June 22, I, along with 18 other senators, sought reduction in funding to deportation forces and detention beds. We argued that existing funding levels should be reduced in order to limit President Trump’s mass deportation apparatus and that the DHS should focus its resources on prioritizing actual threats, rather than targeting millions of unauthorized immigrants for removal.

What can citizens do to help those without documentation, and what can undocumented people do to protect themselves?

Harris: Constituents can always get help from my state offices, which specialize in providing assistance in dealing with federal agencies on these types of issues. The dedicated and compassionate constituent caseworkers in my office are always there to support the needs of our community. If you’re having a problem with a federal program or agency, email my office at

Do you have an official stance on deported military veterans?

Harris: It is astounding that we can spend billions of dollars and send thousands of troops halfway across the world to risk their lives in the name of freedom and democracy, but turn around and deport them from the very country they served when they get back home. Our veterans have served this nation with courage and honor, and we should honor this service by ensuring they are able to come home to their families and lead productive lives.

Brooke Binkowski is a backpack reporter who has been covering the U.S.-Mexico border for many years. Find her on Twitter at @brooklynmarie.

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