Democratic Rep. Susie Lee reiterated that she doesn’t support abolishing ICE even though she acknowledged that the immigration enforcement agency isn’t always adhering to the highest standards of accountability.
In an English interview Friday with The Nevada Independent En Español, Lee said she believes ICE is operating in a broken immigration system that demands comprehensive, bipartisan reform. She also discussed her recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border and what she believes may have been “whitewashing” of the situation before a bipartisan delegation from Congress arrived.
Below is the interview with Lee, a first-term congresswoman seeking re-election in a Southern Nevada swing district. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: What comes to your mind when you hear “the Latino community”?
A: When I think of the Latino community in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada, to me it is such an important part of our community and the vitality of our economy … I think of small business owners, I think of parents and I most importantly think of education and how much more we can be doing on the education front to make sure that we are setting so many young students off on the right path to be contributing members of our society.
Q: Since you became a congresswoman, have you hosted community forums with the Latino community?
A: On each of my staffs here and in Washington, I made sure that I have staff members who are bilingual. It’s incredibly important for me that … our constituents who call in are able to communicate. I’ve had round tables on immigration … We’ve done a lot of case work on that as well … in this community since I’ve been elected, I’ve had 188 meetings, my staff has had over 800 meetings. Almost 60 of my meetings have been public including town halls, etc. I have not had a Latino specific town hall. I’ve had round tables, but — something that we could certainly look into doing.
Q: There are constant changes in immigration laws and programs including the public charge rule. Have you seen evidence that the changes in the public charge rule is dissuading people from seeking help here in the state?
A: Yeah. You know, people are afraid to access benefits, to access SNAP, to access, you know, health care. I mean they’re afraid to access those services. So, you know, it’s having an impact on students, on children. I’m very concerned about it.
Q: We were also talking about your visit to the border in McAllen, Texas with a bipartisan group of members of Congress. What did you see there?
A: I don’t know if it was a result because we had just passed the supplemental package … I believe that there was a little whitewashing done of the facilities for our entourage … The first detention center we had gone to, they had just moved out 400 people the night before … So there weren’t that many people in the facility when we had gone.
Then we went to … a school facility that was housing undocumented minor boys who have been there, some of them up to nine months at a time … they’re between the ages of 13 and 15. And, you know, it’s hard to see that. It’s hard to see that the changes in this immigration policy — that really is having an impact. I mean, this is like incredible, traumatic exposure for these kids that is going to change the trajectory of their life forever.
And then we went to another facility … and there was a holding cell with men in it. It was standing room only and very hard to see those conditions. … We went to the river where the crossings happen. This was in the area where the mother and her two children had died in the bush … This is a system that’s completely overwhelmed …
What happened is after we had seen everything, we got together as a group and had a round table and went around. And the consensus was this is our problem and this is Congress’s fault and we need to have an answer and we need to come together.
Q: Do you believe in securing the border? Did you agree with President Trump’s plan to revoke money from FEMA and military building projects overseas and in the U.S. to fund the wall?
A: I believe that any country should secure its border and should have a policy on who they want to come to the country and what their path to citizenship is. And so I believe that we should have that … do I believe that we should spend money on a wall that was a campaign promise that again and again, people who are experts at the borders say will have no impact or have very little impact? Most importantly, this is an administration that again, and again has gone around Congress to do something that shouldn’t be done. So I certainly don’t agree that taking money from our military and reducing our national security to build an ill-conceived wall is the right policy at all.
Q: Do you believe we have adequately secured the border?
A: I think that there are investments that we need to make and … it’s in people. It’s in technology. It is in also making sure that we are able to process people coming through. I mean, there’s such a backlog … People are waiting years to be processed through. And so there needs to be an investment up and down that chain so that when people are coming here to claim asylum or coming here to get into the states legally, that we have … a method.
Q: Given the constant changes in immigration laws, threats of deportation, the situation on the border that you witnessed firsthand, the immigrant community of course is concerned. What are some specific examples of how you have been able to help the community in the midst of these changes?
A: We’ve done outreach from my office making sure that people understand what their rights are and helping them if they have questions. We do a lot of immigration case work, making sure that we’re connecting people with the resources that they need and understanding what the law is. And unfortunately there have been many times when quite honestly, we’ve been unable to help because this administration’s making it nearly impossible.
Q: You recently were criticized on Twitter after tweeting about a program that allows students to postpone their student loans while they are being treated for cancer. What’s your response to that criticism? Should student loan forgiveness or postponement be available to a broader group of people and not just to those who are seriously ill?
A: The student loan crisis in this country is crippling young people from being able to get on their feet. And many students are being taken advantage of by not only predatory lenders, but predatory for profit schools. And many of them would have been better off not even going to school in the first place because they go to these schools and take out debt and don’t have any employability after they get their education or the school closes …
This administration has done everything in its power to roll back protections for students. So I believe that students should have an opportunity to prove if they are in hardship, especially if it’s a medical condition, to be able to have a path to defer and postpone the repayment of their loans and certainly, more importantly, we need to focus on the student debt crisis, bringing down the cost of higher ed and making sure that we’re expanding Pell Grants and expanding access to higher education.
Q: You say on your issues page that you don’t support the abolishment of ICE. Why not?
Q: ICE is a national security agency … Not only is it involved in immigration, but it’s involved in drug trafficking. There’s other important roles that it plays. And so I believe it is a national security agency, but like any agency and any law enforcement agency, it needs to operate with transparency and the highest level of accountability. And certainly there are bad actors in any agency and those bad actors need to be held accountable as well.
Q: From your point of view, is ICE adhering to a high standard of accountability?
A: In some cases they are not. But you know, again, I think that this is part of a broken system and that this is an agency that is operating in a broken system. I certainly believe that there are people, there are members of ICE who are trying to do the best job they can and there are other ones that are bad actors and those bad actors should be held accountable.
Q: Under what circumstances would you say Nevada government agencies including Metro should end their 287(g) agreement with ICE?
A: This is, again, a victim of the lack of comprehensive immigration reform. And that’s really, because we don’t have comprehensive immigration policy, we get caught in these situations. And I’ll reaffirm that we need to have transparency and accountability. And you know, this is a … county commissioner issue. But ultimately there needs to be transparency and accountability in the system.
Q: If ICE continues to not turn over key information requested by public officials such as the Clark County Commission, should we end the relationship?
A: I think that is a commission decision to make, but ultimately, you know, they need to be held accountable and turn over that information that’s requested by the public.
Q: This Sept. 5 marked two years since the cancellation of DACA. Although the House has passed the American Dream and Promise Act, support is not expected from President Trump or the Senate, mostly Republican, nor has a permanent solution being reached for TPS. You’ve said you want to see comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship but the Republican controlled Senate is blocking much of the progress the House is making. What needs to be done to change that?
A: The cancellation of DACA and TPS is just incredibly worrisome not just in our community, in every community … Just like, the lack of security and the lack of being able to plan for your life and the turmoil it’s throwing and then the fear for families as well … In 2013 we had comprehensive immigration reform. We had the Gang of Eight agreement that passed the Senate with 62 votes. I mean, it’s not like we need to do a ton of work here. It’s work that has been done. …
Still, when I think about the issue in front of us, to me, it still comes down to comprehensive immigration reform because if you start to talk about just border security, you’re missing what’s happening to people who are here. You know, if you start to talk about just enforcement … you lose people because they’re like, well, how are we going to stop people who shouldn’t be here from coming? You know? And so to me it has to be done in a comprehensive manner. …
This is an administration that doesn’t even want legal immigration happening … And so I don’t have a ton of hope that Mitch McConnell’s gonna take … the DREAM Act off his desk and pass it. But … I’m committed as part of that group that went down to the border, to working on comprehensive immigration reform. And it has to be bipartisan.
Q: Do you support ending the filibuster (Senate rule requiring 60 votes to advance legislation)?
A: Yes. And you know, one of the things when we were elected in this historic class to Congress, one of our commitments was making sure that not only do we move an agenda for the people, whether it’s raising the minimum wage … to the DREAM and Promise Act. I mean we’ve passed bill after bill, but more importantly, we were committed to opening up the rules of Congress to make sure that if there is a bill that has … overwhelming support of the American public, bipartisan support, that it gets brought to the floor …
I’m a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus and one of our demands was break the gridlock. And one of the key rules that we got passed was if a bill has 290 co-sponsors, it must get action on the floor. And so, you know, ending the filibuster would have an impact like that, so that one person cannot block action that has … overwhelming support of the American public.
Q: You have been clear about your support of expanding gun background checks but do you support legislation that would ban high capacity magazines and assault weapons?
A: Absolutely. … I’ve been very clear on that — that I don’t believe having a military-style assault weapon is necessary in this country. And so I honor that we have the 2nd Amendment, that law abiding citizens own guns, but I do think that we don’t need high capacity magazines or assault weapons on our streets.
Q: Let’s talk about 2020. Would you support the Democratic nominee if you disagree with their positions? Like, let’s say Bernie Sanders.
A: I would have to think that there isn’t a nominee that I would not agree with more than this president. So I will be supporting whoever the Democratic nominee is.
Q: What makes you different from the other two candidates who are running in the Republican primary for District 3?
A: I have a proven track record of working for this community. I mean, being a congressperson is a job of service and working for constituents and I’ve been in Las Vegas for 25 years. From the minute I set foot in this community, I’ve got to work to help improve this community. And I just think that I have shown that that’s exactly what I’ve been doing as a congresswoman …
I’ve returned over $500,000 to constituents through our case work. I’ve focused on education, getting [budget] appropriations for additional [medical] residencies in our state, getting money for … communities to fight our opioid crisis. So I think I have a proven track record that shows that I’m willing to work with anyone to solve problems and get things done in our community and I hope voters, see that. And I think that’s the main difference between me and the other two candidates.
Q: How are you planning to engage with the Latino community so they get out to vote?
A: I’m going to do exactly what we did last time, making sure I’m getting out there, meeting with constituent groups … I go to any event I can. But also engaging people in my campaign that are going to engage with those communities and not only Latino, it’s our Asian American Pacific Islander, African American, our young, our senior population. It’s really for us about getting out and talking to people and making sure they understand how important this election is.
Q: What moves you to keep doing this job?
A: I think that this is an incredibly important time in this country … Whether it’s climate crisis, whether it’s the economic inequality, that was sort of what drove me to run in the first place. But more importantly, it’s the divisiveness and dysfunction in Washington. And I believe it’s important that we have people that are there to serve the public and serve their constituents and more importantly, that are looking for ways to bring the country together to find solutions.
Q: You also supported legislation that will gradually raise the minimum wage to $15. Is that the right wage for Nevada?
A: The minimum wage has not been raised in over a decade, which really has meant almost a 17 percent pay cut in terms of real purchasing power for American workers … Not only does the Raise the Wage Act raise that [to $15 by] 2026, there is a provision that it will then be indexed from there on out … I believe that people should not have to work four jobs to make ends meet you know? And so I am proud to have supported that legislation.