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Senate candidates Smith, Housley tackle immigration

Tina Smith1 / 2
Karin Housley2 / 2

DULUTH — Vying to fill one of Minnesota's U.S. Senate seats for the remaining two years of President Donald Trump's first term in office, both major party candidates said they aren't afraid to challenge the president on immigration.

That comes as little surprise from Sen. Tina Smith, the Democrat appointed to the seat in January, who has joined a chorus of critics, particularly on the administration's policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexican border.

"It's inhuman," she told Forum News Service. "It was done by this administration as some sort of attempt to scare parents by terrifying their children, and it is unconscionable to me that there are still hundreds of children that are still separated from their parents."

Smith's challenger, State Sen. Karin Housley, said she supports most of the president's policies and his performance in office. But she said she has no qualms about voicing disagreement on issues.

The Republican candidate noted that she came out in opposition to the family separations before Trump signed an executive order reversing the practice. (Trump, incidentally, campaigned in Duluth that day and acknowledged Housley, who was in attendance.)

"I'm not afraid to speak out and exercise my independency, to voice my beliefs, and I did on that issue, ahead of the president signing documentation to keep them together," she said in an interview. "Even in my work at the state Senate, I wasn't a rubber stamp for leadership."

Immigration policy has emerged as one of the most divisive political issues of the day, with candidates of both parties saying immediate action is needed to overhaul a broken system. But bipartisan reform efforts have to this point been unsuccessful.

Smith and Housley appear to have some common ground. Both candidates said the legal immigration process needs to be easier to navigate. Both said the country should bolster border security. Both also said they support a path to citizenship for the so-called "Dreamers" — undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.

But they also struck key differences in how to achieve those goals and enforce policy.

Smith said the country needs a "comprehensive plan" for border protection, including more Border Patrol agents, improved barriers where practical, expanded camera systems and intelligence gathering efforts.

She said a large-scale wall spanning the entirety of the Mexican border, as frequently pushed by Trump, is not a feasible, one-size-fits-all solution.

"We should have a secure border, and I think there are lots of ways to do that," Smith said. "The simple 'build a wall,' I think, is kind of dumb, because a physical border might not be practical in some places. We have a physical barrier across many parts of our border right now and what the issue is in some places are that drug smugglers are building tunnels under that physical border, so what we really need to secure our border in that case is underground sensors."

Housley also said a wall may not be necessary in all places, but said she'd like to see more agents and resources put to the task of border security.

"Each part of the border can be secured differently, whether it's getting more resources for agents at the border or using technology like drones to secure the borders, or it parts it does need to be the wall," Housley said. "But securing the border means that immigrants come here legally."

Housley contended Smith and fellow Democrats have taken an "anti-law enforcement" stance toward Immigration and Customs Enforcement and claimed her opponent wants to see "open borders."

Smith rejects that notion, saying she'd like to "see how ICE could be improved, so kids aren't left abandoned," but rejecting calls from some to abolish the agency. Meanwhile, she said additional efforts should be made to track visas and improve the E-verify process.

Housley said she supports legal immigration, noting that her grandfather passed through Ellis Island en route to the Iron Range before settling in the Twin Cities. Pressed on the Trump administration's efforts to curb legal immigration numbers, Housley said she supports policy that brings the "best and brightest from other countries."

"Part of the reason that people are coming into the country illegally is because the process to get here legally takes so long," she said. "We need to cut some of that bureaucracy."

But Smith said the crackdown on legal immigration doesn't make sense and is harming the economy. She said the federal government should be focusing to reducing years of backlogs for those working to enter the country legally.

"My view is that when we think about immigration we ought to think about our core values, about what what makes stronger, what promotes our values and what is good for our country's economic strength," she said. "When I talk to businesses around Minnesota, they tell me that they are looking for people to do the jobs that they are creating."

Both candidates said they can work across the aisle to achieve bipartisan reform on immigration issues, even as they at times condemned the policies and rhetoric in the ongoing debate.

While Smith was vocal in her criticism of Trump, Housley repeatedly took aim at Smith, who she called a "puppet" for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

"People are sick of Washington and my opponent not getting anything done," she asserted. "This is one of the issues Minnesotans want us to focus on."

Smith and Housley square off in a Nov. 6 special election to serve out the remaining two year of the term started by Sen. Al Franken, who resigned last December. But the victory will be short-lived for the winner, who will face a re-election campaign for a full, six-year term in 2020.