Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) was featured in an Immigration Newsmaker conversation hosted by the Center for Immigration Studies on Wednesday, September 5, at 9:30 a.m. at the National Press Club.
Rep. Smith, who announced his retirement earlier this year, has been a leader in the nation's immigration debate for more than 30 years. He was elected to represent the 21st District of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives in the same week that President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the amnesty whose consequences are with us still.
The only current member of Congress to have been chairman of three committees, Rep. Smith has left his mark in a wide variety of areas. But the depth and longevity of his influence on the immigration debate stands out. Having served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and its Immigration Subcommittee, member of the Homeland Security Committee, and founder of the Border Security Caucus, Rep. Smith has been a driving force behind major immigration legislation, including the Immigration Act of 1990, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the REAL ID Act of 2005, the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and most recently, the Legal Workforce Act, which would mandate use of E-Verify.
Date: Wednesday, September 5, 2018, at 9:30 a.m.
Location: National Press Club, 529 14th St, NW, 13th Floor, Washington, D.C.
Introduction and Moderator
Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies
Rep. Lamar Smith
R-TX, Former Chairman of of the House Judiciary Committee
MARK KRIKORIAN: Good morning. The Center for Immigration Studies has hosted several conversations with immigration newsmakers over the past year. And we’re pleased this morning to have Congressman Lamar Smith with us. Congressman Smith was elected to the 21st District of Texas, U.S. House of Representatives in the same week that President Reagan signed the 1986 immigration law – the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 – whose – the failure of that legislation basically haunts and colors the immigration debate to this day. The only current member of Congress to have been chairman of three committees – I don’t know if that’s good or bad. (Laughter.) Unenviable dealing with – having to herd cats in three committees.
Congressman Smith has left his mark in a variety of areas. Most recently, he’s been chairman of the Science Committee. But the depth and longevity of his influence on the immigration debate really stands out. He’s been chairman of the Judiciary Committee and its Immigration Subcommittee, is still members of both. He’s a member of the Homeland Security Committee and founder of the Border Security Caucus.
And in those various capacities, it’s been the driving force behind much of the major immigration legislation that we’ve seen over the past three decades – including the Immigration Act of 1990, the 1996 mouthful – I wish they’d come up with a shorter acronym – (laughter) – but the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which is very – an extremely important piece of legislation. The Homeland Security Act of 2002, the REAL ID Act of 2005, the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and most recently the Legal Workforce Act, which Congressman Smith has been sponsoring for a couple of Congresses now, which would mandate use of E-Verify for all hires.
Congressman Smith has announced he won’t be running for reelection. And so he’s going to complete his service in Congress at the end of this year. And we thought it would be a good opportunity for the Congressman to discuss his experience in this immigration policy debate and share any lessons for the future because this is a debate that’s not going away no matter who’s in Congress or who’s in the White House. So welcome, Congressman. I’m glad you could join us.
My first question is kind of basic. What attracted you to the immigration issue in the first place? Because before Congress you were a reporter – which I had forgotten about it – a lawyer, you had been in county government and the state legislature. None of those mean you can’t get involved in immigration, but they don’t, you know, scream immigration. So what was it that attracted you?
REPRESENTATIVE LAMAR SMITH (R-TX): It’s a bit of a long story. But before I get there, let me thank you for those very generous remarks and that wonderful introduction. You give me too much credit, but I’m glad you’re spreading rumors. And good morning to you all as well. Thank you for your interest in this subject. And I am going to answer Mark’s question, but I want to compliment on the way to that answer and say really it’s a privilege to be with him this morning.
I know of very few people, if anyone, who are more of an expert on the subject of immigration than Mark Krikorian. And I think what he brings to the subject at hand and what he brings to the debate is that he is thoughtful, he is knowledgeable, he is smart. And maybe the ultimate compliment I could pay Mark is to say that I am absolutely convinced and confident that anything he writes is absolutely accurate. So I am always quoting him, citing his studies, citing his writings. But I’ve never known him to be caught off base. Whatever he says, he has checked out and authenticated and footnoted. So I appreciate, again, the knowledge he brings and the accuracy he brings to the immigration debate.
My getting interested in immigration actually goes back way before Congress. We have a family ranch in South Texas. And I don’t know that I’ve ever mentioned this before. But I remember when I was younger – I started to say teenager, but maybe it was after teenage years – I would be outside in South Texas. And I would see these twin-engine planes fly overhead at a few hundred feet. They were unmarked. They had no numbers on the tail. And that was the obvious sign of an aircraft that didn’t want to be recognized, that wanted to allude all identification whatsoever. And in those days, it was well-known that these twin-engine aircraft flying low without any numbers on the tail were flying drugs and landing in these grass runway strips in south Texas.
And I remember when I asked somebody and said, you know, what are those planes? Why are they flying so low? They – you know. And it was explained to me what their insidious cargo was – the cargo that would corrupt the minds and bodies of Americans across the country. And they were coming across the border, and we were close to the border. And when I saw those planes I knew – I was bothered by it. It didn’t know I was going to be in a position to try to do something about it. And it so happens that when I was elected in 1986, took office in ’87, my district included over 300 miles of common border with Mexico, more than any other congressional district in the United States.
When you share 300 miles with Mexico, that rivets your attention. You are going to be interested in illegal drug running. You’re going to be interested in illegal traffic of any kind – human cargo, other cargo. And you’re going to be interested in the number of people coming across the border illegally. So it was a combination of that early first-hand experience of seeing those planes, plus having a district with 300 miles of Mexican border, that made me want to see membership on the Judiciary Committee and also be a member of the Immigration Subcommittee, that I have been the entire time I’ve been in Congress.
Mark, I don’t know if you remember this or not, but that first term the first thing I did because of these aircraft that were on my mind is that I introduced a bill and got the administration to put up five aerostat balloons with radar on them all along the border, so they could track that aircraft. So that was a direct – my first immigration initiative was a direct result of those first-hand sightings of the planes. And unfortunately, it didn’t end well. This was an example of theory getting ahead of reality. So we put up the aerostat balloon. They’re up at about 1,500 to 2,000 feet. And we had – as I say, we had five up all along the border.
And the quick ending is a year later there was only one still in existence for two reasons. First, they could not fly the balloons when there were heavy winds, so that brought them down. The other is that anybody with a deer rifle could take potshots at these balloons – and did. I mean, 1,500 feet is 500 – you know, 500 yards. That’s not much. And anybody with a .30-30 or .30-06 was out there. Whether they were the smugglers or not, pretty soon there were a lot of holes in the aerostat balloons and they were coming down. So a year later there was one left. A year and a half later there were none left. And we had to come up with other means and ways of trying to track that – those illegal aircraft.
And then, of course, we went on to immigration bills and whatnot. But the early experience and then the 300 miles of common border with Mexico – it was actually, I think, closer to 350 miles – is what got my attention early on.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Interesting. And then redistricting changed that. So you don’t have any border –
REP. SMITH: I no longer have the 300 miles. But you’re right –
MR. KRIKORIAN: I think we do have some of those blimps now. Again, I remember seeing one in Marfa. I guess maybe they solved the problem of getting shot down.
REP. SMITH: Maybe. They’re bulletproof and they’re also higher up.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. That’s true. Well, the first big piece of immigration legislation that you were really instrument in was the 1990 Immigration Act. And I don’t think people really remember how important that was, because even though it wasn’t as significant as the ’65 Act in changing legal immigration, it did increase legal immigration significantly, created the categories we have now. And what I’m wondering is, did that work out the way you’d expected?
REP. SMITH: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that, because it didn’t work out the way I had hoped.
MR. KRIKORIAN: But that’s an important lesson.
REP. SMITH: It did some things that were right. Put a little bit more of an emphasis on immediate families and so forth. But it did raise the cap several hundred thousand. So it went the wrong direction, as far as I’m concerned. It increased immigration rather than maintaining it at current levels or even reducing legal immigration. We can get into the Jordan report a little bit later, because there was an important study done by Barbara Jordan that actually recommended reducing immigration levels, allowing some time for assimilation, also putting an emphasis on skills and education rather than just distant family connections to admit people.
But the 1990 bill, that was interesting. I had some trepidation as it was unfolding. I didn’t have a major, major part, but I remember being on the floor. And I also remember thinking, Mark, that I think it passed – you will probably know better than I – by only 20 or 30 votes. It didn’t pass overwhelmingly. And I thought to myself after it passed: If I had opposed it actively, we probably could have either defeated it or succeeded in amending it before it got to the House floor. And that was where I was young and naïve had hadn’t been around very long, and probably could have had more of an impact on that bill than I did. But we tried to make, you know, some changes that were going the right direction. But unfortunately, I think the cap was raised too high.
MR. KRIKORIAN: You brought up the Jordan Commission, which is Barbara Jordan’s bipartisan commission, headed by former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. I think she had already left Congress by the time you got there. So she wasn’t a colleague at that point. But she was an important Democratic figure, first African-American woman elected to Congress from the South. And the report, as you said, had legal immigration and illegal immigration suggestions. And the legislation that ended up coming out of it, the 1996 mouthful act, the IIRIRA Act ended up only having the illegal immigration portions, the legal parts were cut out. Why do you think that happened? Can you sort of tell us a little bit about what was going on there?
REP. SMITH: All these questions you ask demand long stories to put them in context.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, that’s all right. That’s all right.
REP. SMITH: So I’m glad we have a little bit of time here. But you’re right. Barbara Jordan, by the way, from Texas. A liberal Democrat. And so she had great credibility on this subject. And comes out with a recommendation – strong recommendation, unanimous recommendation by her group – saying that legal immigration levels should come down to between 5(00,000) and 600,000, which – down from 900,000. And it’s up to a million a year now. We can get into that in a second.
So, the 1996 bill that I introduced along with Al Simpson in the Senate tried to mirror the Jordan Commission recommendations. And it included, as Mark suggested, both legal immigration reforms and illegal. On the illegal side, it doubled the number of Border Patrol agents. It made it easier to deport illegal immigrants who had committed crimes. It has the beginnings of an entry/exit system to check visa overstayers. It had the beginning of an E-Verify system to make sure that individuals applying for jobs were legally able to work in the United States. It outlawed sanctuary cities. By the way, this is in 1996. All the law needs to be is enforced. We don’t necessarily need new laws to address sanctuary cities.
And so it had that on the illegal side. But on the legal side what the Jordan Commission recommended and what we tried to incorporate were putting a greater emphasis, as is discussed so much today, on skills and education and trying to make sure that legal immigrants were going to provide for the needs of America, be able to get jobs and care for their families if they got here, and not be a drain on the economy because if they have skills and they have education they’re going to be able to contribute to America’s economy.
So we had all that in there. We also had a reduction in the chain migration, where you have extended family members able to bring in extended family members and so on. So we thought it was common sense. We thought we had a great package. And it was initially supported by the Clinton administration, including then-Attorney General Janet Reno. So we thought the wind was at our backs. Everything looked great until two or three weeks before we were due to be on the House floor.
And the immigration – the liberal immigration activist groups put such pressure on the administration that literally two or three weeks the administration completely reversed themselves. And Janet Reno and the president came out against the bill instead of supporting it, as they had up until that point. So we were blindsided. We were ambushed. And if it hadn’t have been for the administration’s change as a result of the activist group pressure we would have passed the entire bill as introduced.
As it turned out, when we got to the House floor because of the administration’s change, an amendment did pass that succeeded in knocking out the legal immigration reforms. So we were left with basically half the bill, that that addressed illegal immigration, and we lost the legal immigration reforms that we’re still trying to enact today. But that’s a little bit of the history of the bill. I remember one staff member – and I won’t – you know here well, but I won’t mention her name – who had spent so much time and effort on this bill, as we all had – all those on the Immigration Subcommittee staff and full committee staff.
We were on the House floor. And when we lost that amendment and the legal immigration reforms were knocked out, she was weeping on the floor. And I’ve never seen that kind of situation. But she had put her heart and soul into the bill. We thought we had really done something right for the country, right for the immigration system. And we lost that part on the floor. But we’re – you know, here we are, X years later – 22 years later, still trying to implement some of those reforms.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Very similar ones, in fact.
REP. SMITH: Yeah, very similar.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And that was because when the president talked about, you know, the four pillars and everything that he was trying to push that were incorporated in Chairman Goodlatte’s bill, basically that was kind of a version of the Barbara Jordan Commission recommendations, which was –
REP. SMITH: It was. Along with the Cotton bill, and along with the bill that I introduced called immigration and the national interest.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. The – one of the things I think you didn’t mention was Barbara Jordan passed away too. And that sort of – that’s one of the things that freed up Clinton to, you know, do his thing.
REP. SMITH: That’s true. By the way, just an aside and not necessarily particularly important, but I was actually on a flight with her back to Texas the week before she died. And I happened to walk by her and we acknowledged each other and got to say hello. And but then she passed away a week later.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. Yeah, that was a tragedy.
Why do you think the Democrats have gotten so radical on immigration? Because it used to be – I mean, you had – in this ’96 bill, wasn’t – Congressman Bryant, the Democrat from Texas, was with you on it. There were – I mean, I’m not saying all the Democrats were in the same place as Republicans, but there really was a space in the Democratic Party for a more critical, more hawkish perspective on immigration. That literally does not exist. I mean, there’s no one.
REP. SMITH: Yeah. We don’t have that bipartisanship. And you saw that in some of the votes that we had this year, in fact, on some of the immigration bills – Goodlatte bill being an example. But, you know, why do I think they’ve become so much more liberal or maybe even radicalized? I have to say part – I think there’s two reasons. Part of it is the activist groups have become radicalized themselves, where they’re not really interested in border security anymore. They used to be interested in everything. That’s why we had the comprehensive approach. So they’re not – they’re more open borders, they’re more pro-amnesty. And that isolates them, but it also enables them to influence those who are somewhat like-minded, and particularly the liberal Democrats. And anything that’s not massive amnesty they’re going to oppose. And unfortunately, we’ve seen that.
I think there’s a second component, and I’ll be honest about this. I think they realize that if they can achieve their goals, which is to increase immigration and give amnesty to illegal immigrants, that it is very likely that those folks are going to be voting Democratic in the future and that’s going to bolster that party. And so that is – could be part of the motivation.
MR. KRIKORIAN: You had mentioned in the 1996 bill that it mandated – or, not mandated – but set out pilot programs for what we now call E-Verify, that’s the branding for it. It’s actually good – a lot of these government brands aren’t really very good. This was actually a pretty good name. The Bush administration came up with it. But that really points to, I think, the central failure of the ’86 Act that literally colors everything we talk about now, is that we did not succeed in turning off the magnet of jobs. There’s no E-Verify, worksite enforcement has been a joke for a long time. One of our top analysts – Jerry Kammer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter – wrote a small book that we have on sort of tracing the history of worksite enforcement and its failure.
What are the – sort of, what are the forces there that have prevented worksite enforcement? And what do you think it’ll take to get E-Verify actually mandated?
REP. SMITH: Get it done, right, OK. And I – let me speak about E-Verify. But as far as – as far as, you know, the bill goes and as far as we did go in 1996 – as you say, we sort of had a prototype for E-Verify. And that was a good start. To talk about E-Verify first, and then talk about why it hasn’t passed yet, E-Verify, you all are familiar with that. Workforce enforcement in the sense that you have a system set up, it’s an electronic system. It can be accomplished in one or two minutes whereby you check someone’s Social Security number, make sure they are in the country legally, that they are legally entitled to work. And it’s over 99 percent effective in the sense that it correctly identifies 99 percent of the people who are eligible to work in this country.
But the beauty of E-Verify is that it shuts off or greatly diminishes the attraction of the jobs magnet. If, in fact, most people come to the United States to get a job – and I think that’s true of maybe half – it reduces that magnet that pulls them in. If they can’t get a job, if we have E-Verify, they’re not going to have an incentive to come into the country illegally so much. So It’s going to reduce illegal immigration. It has a second positive effect, which is it’s going to save jobs for underemployed and unemployed Americans or legal immigrants who are eligible to work in the country. So it’s – I don’t know how anybody can oppose it, but it does get opposed.
The American people support E-Verify, the Workplace Enforcement Act. It’s the – it gets the highest percent approval of any of the immigration reforms – up to 82 percent. I mean, it’s to me commonsensical. If you reduce illegal immigration, you save jobs for Americans. Who is going to oppose it? The Chamber supports it. The National Restaurant Association supports it. It’s got tons of support. One-third of the workforce is already covered by E-Verify voluntarily. Fifteen hundred employers sign up every week for E-Verify. They know it. They like it. They want to – you know, they don’t want to employ someone illegally and break the law. They also like its sort of level playing field aspect. If everybody abides by it, then nobody has an advantage by hiring illegal immigrants. So it’s got everything to recommend it.
And I think we should – I’d be happy for it to come to the House floor as a standalone bill. I’d like to see who would really oppose it, and what they would – why they would oppose it. We – you know, we see these example of red herrings where people say they oppose it because instead of focusing on the 99 percent-plus accuracy they focus on the half a percent that may be inaccurate. But if it’s inaccurate, those folks have plenty of time to correct the system or show that they are in the country legally or show that they used a middle initial one time and not another, so that was the reason the Social Security number didn’t seem to coincide.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Or a maiden name sometimes –
REP. SMITH: Or maiden names instead of married names. And we get – most all those get corrected. And the ones who don’t get corrected probably are in fact in the country illegally and shouldn’t be getting permission to work in the country. So I think it does work well. But so I think any objection is just misguided, unless, of course, you really don’t want to stop illegal immigration. And that gets us back to the couple points we’ve already discussed. And I’ve got to think that’s maybe some of the motive by the folks that oppose it, is that they really don’t mind open borders. They don’t mind illegal immigration for whatever reason. And so they’re going to oppose anything that is going to reduce illegal immigration.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Now, your Legal Workforce Act, the mandate was included in the broader Goodlatte bill that almost – I mean, it was only 20 votes or so shy of passage, at least in the House. And so it’s – and that had a lot of other things in it. And some people voted against it who are actually immigration hawks. Is there any prospect of it being brought to the floor as a standalone bill?
REP. SMITH: I think so. It’s the Bob Goodlatte-Michael McCaul bill. And it had, you know, more of an emphasis on skills and education. It had stop the chain migration. It had some – it had some refugee reforms.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And the DACA.
REP. SMITH: And it allowed the original corps of the so-called DREAMers to remain in the country legally. So it sort of had something – and it had E-Verify. So it had a little bit – something for everybody. We were 20-some-odd votes short. I think we could get those 20 votes if we brought it up again and really focused attention. And Bob Goodlatte tried really hard. They had a lot of focus groups. But to come that close, I – you know, sooner or later I think it will pass. Now, whether they’re going to bring it before an election, because there’s so much partisanship out there, I don’t know. But it seems to me it’s a good candidate for after the election. And we are going to have a two-week lame duck session in December. Normally I don’t like lame duck sessions because anything can happen, and it usually does. In this case, if they – if we pass the Goodlatte bill it will be a good lame duck session.
MR. KRIKORIAN: It might be worth it? (Laughs.)
So on a different tack, you were also involved in the Homeland Security Act, which was after 9/11, to set up the Department of Homeland Security and put immigration and FEMA and the Coast Guard and everything into this large thing. Was that a good – was DHS a good idea?
REP. SMITH: It could be a good idea. I say it is a good idea, it was a good idea. It could be more useful, I think, if they actually got into a little bit more enforcement. It’s – we have the Homeland Security Committee, which really doesn’t have as much jurisdiction over that as they might. They still share that with Judiciary Committee. So, you know, one committee has policy. The other has more interior enforcement. But, I mean, any agency can always do more. But I do think we need a Department of Homeland Security. I think the more agencies we have enforcing immigration laws, looking out for the national security, the better. And I might say also, gratuitously, that I have been waiting 30 years for a president who would enforce current immigration laws. And I think we finally have a president who will – making an effort, at least, more than I’ve seen before in enforcing laws.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Speaking of the president, the wall has been his big thing. You were involved in the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which wasn’t a wall – or, it didn’t mandate specifically a wall, but the point is it was supposed to be real physical barriers. A couple of administrations now have said they fully complied with it, when in fact hundreds of miles are just, you know, fences three-feet high to keep trucks from driving over it, but your grandma could hop over them. In fact, I have pictures of myself clowning around on them – going under them, over them, and all of that stuff. So, I mean, first of all, do you think it was actually implemented? And what do you think about walls/fences/barriers?
REP. SMITH: Yeah. This is the 2006 bill, which we mandated 700 miles of structures. And structures were not clearly defined, and they can mean different things. In this case, it was both physical structure, electronic structure, tech structure. And by most accounts, we are still several hundred miles short of even enacting or implementing, rather, the 2006 act, which was signed by President Obama. And so – (laughs) –
MR. KRIKORIAN: You mean Bush. It was President Bush.
REP. SMITH: I mean, President Bush. So, first of all, let’s make sure that we enforce the current laws. And we still have a couple more hundred miles of fencing and – or structures to complete under the ’06 Act. But we can do a lot more. You might recall, Mark, there were a couple years ago that the Government Accounting Office did a study of how much of the border was under full control, where they knew exactly who was coming across and why and what for. And I’m trying to get this exactly right. I think the GAO determined that only something like 6 percent of the border was under full control. That is just astounding for a sovereign nation.
And it is no wonder that we still have hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border illegally every year. We still have hundreds of thousands of people coming in on a tourist or business visa and overstaying their visa. And when they overstay their visa, they’re in an illegal status. We have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people every year. That is just intolerable, unacceptable. And that’s what, I think, the president wants to stop. So a little bit – a little bit off the subject there, but we can certainly build more structures. And it probably has to be a combination of physical structures and tech and people too.
I mean, we’ve seen examples twice in recent years where if they wanted to stop illegal immigration – I mean, literally bring it to close to zero, to a standstill, they can do so. They did it in San Diego. They did it in El Paso when Silvestre Reyes was the Border Patrol chief. When you station a Border Patrol agent every few hundred yards then you stop illegal immigration. And if you put a structure, it’s even easier. If you put the double structure where you can – that Border Patrol can drive between the fences and if you get over one you’re not going to get over the second, that brings it to a standstill. That’s what they did in San Diego. So it is possible.
And by the way, as an aside, the people who say if you build a 15-food wall or fence or structure they’ll devise a 16-foot ladder, that is – ah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: It’s your governor came up with that. Your former governor.
REP. SMITH: Well, yeah, I’m going to watch my words. (Laughter.) And I won’t use the word starting with – maybe I’m starting to. But let’s just say that’s an exaggeration or – I’ll think of another euphemism in a minute. But in point of fact, you can stop people with physical structures. And whether you have a 16-foot ladder, or a 20-foot ladder isn’t going to make any difference. You’re still not going to get across. So it’s just a matter of will. It’s a matter of determination. And it’s a matter of coming up with the funds to build the structures.
MR. KRIKORIAN: You had mentioned visa overstays. And that’s the other side of the illegal immigration issue. Current research suggests that actually half of the new illegals now that are coming in each year are visa overstays. And we actually have a report coming out today I think today or tomorrow summarizing the DHS report on that. 1996 act, again go back to that, mandated for the first time an electronic entry/exit thing. And Congress I think seven more times since then – I think we counted them up. So eight times altogether so far has mandated that the executive develop not only a check-in system – because the check-in we do a lot better than before 9/11 – but also check-out. What’s it going to take to get a system like that done?
REP. SMITH: Yeah. Gosh. Well, as you suggested, most people don’t realize that 40 to 50 percent of the people in the country illegally today, which is to say close to 50 percent of the 12 million or however many – whatever the number is, are in fact visa overstayers. I think most people think that the people in the country illegally are – 95 percent cross the border illegally. But that’s not the case. You get a tourist visa and you come and you – and if you don’t leave, then you’re here illegally. And that was the easy way to get in. By the way, it’s always amazed me why people go through that arduous trip oftentimes, and dangerous, of coming across the border illegally when all they have to do is say – (laughs) – I’m a tourist, and come in, and I want to do some shopping, and then never leave the country.
But the visa – the entry/exit system is so simple. And it’s basically you collect information from a person coming in and then you collect information from people leaving. And when you don’t have a match, you know that person has overstayed. And you may have an address, or you may know where they are, or contact information. So it doesn’t take any time to gather that information and then apply it in this day in age. But it’s just not something that we’ve done. And we’ve mandated, as you say, through Republican and Democratic presidents that it be done. It’s starting in some airports. But we need to do it not only in airports. We need to do it at all land crossings as well, if we’re really serious about reducing illegal immigration.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So I want to ask about the gang of eight bill. It was obviously a Senate project. But then it came over to the House when it passed the Senate. And it ended up failing partly because of Congressman Brat’s victory in the primary, partly because of the surge of Central Americans happening at the same time at the border. But how close was that to actually passing the House?
REP. SMITH: Close enough so that all of us who were opposed were really worried. (Laughs.) And you’re right, with the Brat victory over Eric Cantor and immigration being the dominant issue in that particular upset, that did get a lot of people’s attention. And it had a lot of – a lot of momentum behind it. It had a good Senate vote – a better vote than a lot of us were expecting, and more Republicans on it than we were expecting. But it was just too much amnesty for a lot of us to swallow. And we were reminded of the ’86 bill, which is still instructive today, where we were promised border security and in exchange for the amnesty.
And we got massive amnesty. We never got adequate border security. And so a lot of us just thought we were seeing ’86 again in the guise of this gang of eight bill. And that, once again, we’d have amnesty. And, once again – amnesty, by the way, is immediate. Amnesty is today. The border security is in future years. And that can be stopped by lawsuits. It can be stopped by inadequate appropriations funding and on and on and on. So we weren’t at all confident that that bill was going to be anything other than reliving the ’86 Act. So that’s why a lot of us were opposed.
MR. KRIKORIAN: As the Popeye character says: I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. So they were going to gladly give us enforcement for amnesty today. Along those lines, what do you think the Democrats will do if they take the majority in the House, which seems at least – certainly possible, probably likely in my opinion. But let’s just hypothetically, if they do that do you see potentially a son of gang of eight maybe coming out of the Senate, and then –
REP. SMITH: Well, two things, Mark. One, it worries me because, as I said earlier – it worries me that you think it’s likely. I’m – I always argue on the side I wish to carry. And so I would say that I can give you good reasons why we won’t change hands, and the Republicans will be in the majority.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Here’s hoping.
REP. SMITH: And, OK, I’m going to do 30 seconds as to why.
MR. KRIKORIAN: OK, please.
REP. SMITH: (Laughs.) And it’s basically the good news out there. The American people – it is – let’s see. The American people’s confidence in the future of the country is at a 18-year high. So despite what you hear or read in the media or elsewhere, the American people like what they see going on or they do have confidence in the future of the country. So an 18 year high as far as consumer confidence goes. You’ve got unemployment, probably record levels for minorities, never seen this low before. And for everybody else, it’s like, you know, the lowest it’s been in 20-some-odd years, something like that. You’ve got an economy that is taking off. You’ve got more jobs created, economic growth, and so forth.
By – you know, so under all usual circumstances we might even be looking at a gain, certainly not a loss, when you have that much going on that’s good in the country and for the American people. But there are other factors. I concede that. One of them is simply funding. A lot of Republican candidates who are used to outspending their opponents by a larger margin are being outspent themselves. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a net loss on the Republican side. I don’t know whether it will get up to the 22-23 that would change the hands of the House. So I’m going to assume that Republicans still have the majority, although it may be a more slender majority.
And I’m going to do what I normally don’t do. Whenever I – the first rule of a politician is never answer a hypothetical question. (Laughter.) And Mark says, if the House changed hands, which is a hypothetical. So that’s why I’m slow getting into this answer. But as far as what the Democrats might do if it did change, I think it’s going to be amnesty number one, number two, and number three. And a very –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Or defunding ICE, maybe. I mean, is that a possibility, do you think? No?
REP. SMITH: No, I don’t think that they are that irrational. I just don’t think – (laughter) – I just don’t believe it. And I think the American people are – by the way, you’ve seen all the polls. You can only go against the American people so often, so many times. And the American people still want more border security. They still want people to go home who come in illegally. They still don’t want to give welfare to illegal immigrants. And they still support ICE. You know, how many times can the Democrats, even if they were in the majority, go against the wishes of the American people? And I think it’s limited.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Is the last question, and then we’ll take maybe a few from the audience. But Congress hasn’t passed anything on immigration in more than a decade now. I guess – I think maybe the Secure Fence Act is probably the last big legislation that related to immigration.
REP. SMITH: Some of us say the last major immigration bill was 1996.
MR. KRIKORIAN: OK. Well, that’s true. But it’s still that – my point is that the – I mean, Congress does not seem to be able to pass even some incremental bills, which, you know, from my perspective, is probably the way to go – step-by-step small deals, much less, obviously, these grand bargain bills with 1,000 pages. And it seems to me a lot of that is due to basically a lack of trust. A lot of the Republicans don’t believe the Democrats will keep their word – and, frankly, probably vice versa, whether that’s warranted or not. Is there a way out of this dead end? I mean, you’re obviously not going to be there, or at least not after next – you know, not after this year.
REP. SMITH: I’ll be there vicariously. But not – (laughs) –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, well, but the point is Congress is supposed to be passing laws. And this is an important area that needs some changes. How can we – how can we do that?
REP. SMITH: You’re right. And I – part of it is the excessive partisanship. Part of it is this time of the season neither party wants to give the other party any credit. So the Democrats aren’t going to give us credit for securing the border. You know, we came up with a package, like you said a while ago, to address DACA. It had border security. It had everything in it. Which – and it came 20 votes short. I think that’s the bill that came the closest. So that’s what we can revisit, as I mentioned, when we go into a lame duck session. But I think early next year or – lame duck or early into next Congress might be a time to pass some of these bills.
There’s a problem with the so-called comprehensive approach these days. And that is if you’re looking for a reason to oppose something – and everybody is – you can always find something in a comprehensive bill to oppose. So I’m almost tempted to say we ought to rifle shot some immigration bills and start off with the three or four or five most popular. And that would include giving legal status to DACA folks in the country. It would include E-Verify. It would include border security. And you know, come together with maybe a slim – one at a time, and then put them together and try to get them across.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Considering that not a single Democrat voted for any of these bills that have come up in the Senate, at least the equivalent of the Goodlatte bill in the Senate, and then likewise in the House, that’s – my point is that’s kind of a challenge for – frankly, even if a Republican House passes something, what happens in the Senate?
REP. SMITH: Yeah. And the other problem is, even if we get it through the House, look at what happens in the Senate, where you still have the filibuster rule, where one Senator can sit in their office and make a phone call and suddenly you have to get 60 votes even to bring up an amendment, much less a bill. That’s another subject. I’d get rid of the filibuster, but we’ll talk about that another time. Right now the filibuster is being abused as it’s never been abused before. And if that continues and it blocks major legislation, including immigration reform, I think it ought to be changed.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. I mean – so you – so are you announcing a run for the Senate?
REP. SMITH: (Laughs.) No. Too late.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, let’s see. Yeah, that’s already the question I asked. So what’s next for you?
REP. SMITH: That was not a question I was expecting.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, well, you can punt on that one. That’s OK.
REP. SMITH: (Laughs.) I’ll say this. I don’t know. I’ve got four months left. I’m sure I will panic in the next month or two. But I do know this, just because I care so deeply about the issue of immigration I’m going to find a way to try to stay involved. By the way, I’m not one of those members of Congress who are slamming the door as I leave. I love my job. There is no other job I’d rather have. And I find it hard to walk away from 30 years of friendships and 30 years of being involved in the issues that I really, really care about. One of them, obviously, is immigration. So I hope to find a way to stay involved with immigration.
And I might say, on immigration, it’s a fascinating subject. I don’t know of any other issue that is so complex, so emotional, so multifaceted, so intractable than immigration. And it impacts every aspect of our society. I mean, you just can’t name another issue that is sort of all-pervasive other than immigration. But, anyway, I’m interested in the issue for lots and lots of reasons. So even though I don’t know specifically what I’m going to be doing, I hope to stay involved with immigration one way or the other.
MR. KRIKORIAN: There’s a question from the audience on something I didn’t touch on, which is – and it seems technical but it’s really a pretty broad question – H1-B and L immigration. This is skilled immigration, pretty large-scale, but ostensibly temporary. And it’s been abused and manipulated and gamed. And what do you think about reforms or changes to it?
REP. SMITH: Yeah. The reforms on H1-Bs, and frankly almost any category of immigration, is going to be make sure that people are not able to fraudulently game the system. And they’re doing that in virtually every type of immigrant category. And if we tighten it up, then I can see a legitimate justification for H1-Bs and others. Sometimes you worry about are they taking jobs away from American citizens or legal immigrants. That’s a legitimate concern. But I think if you tighten it up and you demonstrate a need and you advertise for Americans to get the job first, there’s ways to, I think, make it effective.
Another area that’s so abused is refugees. And just to take that for a second, as you all know the definition of refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution back home for various reasons. But we do not allow the admission of what you might call economic refugees. Just because someone wants to better their lifestyle or earn money is not reason enough to be given refugee status, which is a status, by the way, that entitles you to work, it entitles you to federal benefits. And it comes with all kinds of so-called perks. And a lot of people, particularly in South America – I mean, Central America, are really trying to get admission as economic refugees, not because they have a well-founded fear of persecution of religion, or whatever it might be. And we definitely need to tighten up that system. And the president’s trying to do so, I might add, as we sit here.
MR. KRIKORIAN: What were your thoughts about what was – came to be called the family separations policy on the border.
REP. SMITH: Oh, gosh, yeah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Where parents were prosecuted because they were committing a crime, but obviously the kids aren’t committing the crime. And so that – anyway, we all saw that unfold and the administration dialed it back. Is there some – is there – do you think there’s a way they could have avoided that or rolled it out differently? Or what are your thoughts on that?
REP. SMITH: Well, first of all, what President Trump was doing was exactly the same thing President Obama did without the media scrutiny and without the criticism. And that sort of speaks for itself as to why that might have occurred. And so I think they got totally caught off-guard. They’re just following the system. Yes, we have to detain the parents and do it in a humane way. It was blown up. And very little reference was made to the fact that this has been longstanding policy in the United States. And so I think the administration moved fairly quickly to try to resolve that the best way they could. And a lot of things that they did were taken out of context.
And sometimes you can’t find the parents. Sometimes they weren’t really parents to begin with. And sometimes they were almost using the children as an anchor to get the adults into the country. So people were gaming the system when it came to that situation, just like they gamed the system anyway – I mean, it’s human nature. They’re going to try to – if they see a loophole, they’re going to try to take advantage of it. Or, if they see a way to game the system, they can too. But it subsided as an issue because I think the president genuinely tried to find ways to keep the families together. But one thing you cannot do is to allow someone to come in who’s coming in with children illegally to get a free pass, because that’s just going to encourage more people to come in the same way.
MR. KRIKORIAN: You – as I mentioned, very early in your career you were a reporter for a couple of years. And you’ve been active on the Hill in trying to keep the media honest. What do you think about media coverage of immigration? I mean, a lot of it has been pretty bad and some of it has been good. But what are your thoughts on it?
REP. SMITH: Yeah. Well, overall – you probably are aware of this because of Gallup polls and other polls. But overall the president’s been getting about 90 percent negative media coverage. It’s an all-time high.
MR. KRIKORIAN: That’s all? Only 90 (percent)?
REP. SMITH: Only 90, yeah. I never see the 10 percent. But it’s higher. It’s a higher negative coverage than any other recent president, which I think is unfair. My guess is on the subject of immigration the negative coverage is even higher than 90 percent. And it’s just – I can – I almost never see an accurate immigration story. There are a few reporters who try to present both sides, but most of the time it’s an editorial. It’s not an immigration news story. And it’s very slanted. And it’s either against the president or it’s pro-amnesty or pro-open borders. And very seldom do you see an article or even commentary that says we need more border security and less amnesty. So I really – I really worry about the coverage. That over time probably does affect public opinion. But I think the coverage of immigration is probably the worst example of media bias and slant that I’ve seen.
MR. KRIKORIAN: My last question is – I’m not trying to put you on the hot seat. So you’re good –
REP. SMITH: Wait a minute. You’re asking pretty tough questions. (Laughs.)
MR. KRIKORIAN: You’re good at – you’re good at – as a politician, you can deal with this. But is President Trump at a plus or minus? Or you think in the long run will he have been a plus or a minus for the immigration issue? Because obviously he’s increased enforcement. National Review just had a long piece on this. He may be affecting – sort of pushing some people away because of his, you know, various antics that changes their view. So what do you think –
REP. SMITH: Well, again, that gets back to the negative media coverage, and that affects it too. To me, that’s an easy question to answer. The answer is yes, he has a positive impact on immigration reform. As I mentioned a while ago, I haven’t seen any other president in 30 years who is willing to enforce immigration laws, as this president is. You saw one of the most recent things that he did. I mean, it was a shock I think to the system for a lot of people, where he said: We shouldn’t be admitting immigrants who are going to become public charges, who are going to use welfare. Well, that’s actually been in our law for 100 years. It’s just never been enforced. Why should we admit individuals who are likely to come in and, you know, their first act is to sign up for welfare? That’s not the kind of immigrants we want to admit, who are going to contribute to the economy and be able to get a job and so forth.
And look at – look at all the negative coverage he got by enforcing the law. And I would say if you’re opposed to that or you want to criticize the president, don’t criticize the president for enforcing laws. Get Congress to change the law so that’s no longer the law. But that’s an example where I think he got unfairly criticized. But there’s a little bit of a – and you’ve written about this – there’s a little bit of a fact here that’s important to know, and that is that half or a little over 50 percent of immigrant families in the United States use some form of welfare, versus 30 percent of the non-immigrant families. So 50 percent versus 30 percent. Immigrants do use welfare more than – more than the so-called native born, more than U.S. citizens, say. And that should be of some concern.
But I think the president in wanting to build more of a structure in enforcing the law, and wanting to reform the refugee system, wanting to make sure that individuals from some countries who might not have the best motives to enter the United States are scrutinized more than they had been, I think he’s been doing lots and lots of things right when it comes to immigration reform.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, thank you, Congressman.
REP. SMITH: Thank you, Mark.
MR. KRIKORIAN: I appreciate it. I hope my questions weren’t putting you on the hot spot too much – the hot seat.
REP. SMITH: Not at all. Not at all.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So we hope you’re going to stay involved in this issue after January, after you finish. And thanks to everybody who attended.
And I believe our next conversation like this is going to be with Chairman Goodlatte, who is also leaving this term. He’s not leaving for reelection, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. So stay tuned for that, and thank you very much Congressman Smith.
REP. SMITH: Thank you very much. (Applause.)