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California's 40th District

May 4, 2024 | In The News

Herald & Review

SPRINGFIELD — Two Illinois Democrats were among a bipartisan congressional delegation that traveled to the southern border last week to see the situation firsthand with hopes of keeping immigration reform negotiations alive.

Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, and Rep. Eric Sorensen, D-Moline, made the trip with a fellow Democrat and three Republican colleagues through the Washington D.C.-based think tank Bipartisan Policy Center.

Bipartisan trips to the southern border are rare given the always politically charged issue of immigration and the particularly dire present humanitarian and security situation.

“Those don’t happen,” Sorensen said. “They’re very, I would say extremely, rare to be able to have three Republicans and three Democrats come together and we have the same information in front of us. And so I think what that does is it increases the possibility that we’re going to be able to come up with a real solution.”

Budzinski, whose 13th Congressional District covers central and southern Illinois, and Sorensen, whose 17th Congressional District includes central and northwestern Illinois, told Lee Enterprises in separate interviews this week that it was the first time they had been to the U.S.-Mexican border since they took office last year.

“What I took away from what I saw is that this is a very complicated issue,” Budzinski said. “And that we do very much have a broken system in a couple of ways. One is, first and foremost, we do have a crisis at the border that requires immediate attention.”

In fiscal year 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a record of more than 2.47 million encounters at the southern border, up from 2.37 million in 2022 and 1.73 million in 2021. 

Budzinski, after talking to Border Patrol agents and others, said the answer is not another border wall, but more funding for technology improvements that will aid agents in managing the influx of migrants. 

She said the second way in which the system is “broken” is the influx of drugs into the United States. “We have to be finding more investment to stop fentanyl, in particular, from getting into this country,” she said.

Sorensen said the prevalence of fentanyl is often where the border issue hits home the most. Overdose deaths involving the synthetic opioids have skyrocketed in recent years in the United States. It’s an issue he hears about from his constituents. Many of the drugs fueling America’s addiction come over via the southern border.

“We need to develop the technology to find the fentanyl if it’s smuggled inside the engine of a car,” Sorensen said. “That’s what the cartels are doing. This is huge business for them — on the order of tens of billions of dollars.

“I asked when I was riding along one-on-one with a Border Protection Officer, ‘I’ve heard some people say that the cartels have better control over the border than the United States or Mexico, is that true?’ And he said in parts of the border region, that’s true because they’re so sophisticated and they have so many people on both sides of the border,” Sorensen said.

Budzinski said making the trip was her “top priority this year” and that she “intentionally wanted to go on a bipartisan trip,” a sentiment Sorensen echoed.

But the odds of an immigration deal in Washington appear slim with the 2024 presidential election just over six months away. Immigration has been a major campaign issue, with Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, criticizing Biden for the surge of migrants crossing the border.

There was some hope earlier this year as a bipartisan group of Senators came to an agreement on a comprehensive reform bill that would essentially close the border to asylum seekers if illegal crossings reached an average of 5,000 per day over seven days or 8,500 in a day.

The legislation would have also significantly expedited the asylum process, with cases being processed within a matter of months instead of years. It would have also made the standards for seeking asylum tougher. 

But, the effort was essentially killed when Trump and House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., came out in opposition. 

Sorensen, who won by just four percentage points in 2022, is once again being targeted for defeat by national Republicans. The party has nominated former Circuit Court Judge Joe McGraw, whose campaign has tied Sorensen to Biden in a negative critique of the administration’s border policy.

The Moline Democrat said he did not want to make immigration a political issue, arguing that “we’re farther and farther away from actually having a solution” when that happens.

“I can’t help when a political foe of mine wants to gin up things to actually help him win over the majority when I’m actually doing the work,” Sorensen said. “And that’s where I am today.”

Budzinski said she still holds out hope that a bipartisan deal can be reached. She said Democrats and Republicans agree on many of the issues, including that the asylum process is “overrun” due to low staffing and some seeking the status who take advantage of a broad definition of asylum. 

“These are places where Democrats and Republicans agree,” Budzinski said. “We need to find the political will to make this a reality because what’s happening on the border and specifically my concerns around the fentanyl that is crossing the border has to stop.”

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