Border politics: San Diego Democrat Peters says Trump should "stop beating up on Mexico"
San Diego — As the federal budget showdown begins this week -- amid intense White House pressure for billions of dollars to construct a border wall — California Democratic Rep. Scott Peters of San Diego says that President Trump doesn't get it: that in a thriving urban area that’s home to one of the world’s busiest international crossings with Mexican neighbor Tijuana, “we view the border as an opportunity – not a threat.”
Peters also sharply challenged U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was in San Diego last week to talk up the border wall construction, and who suggested that cities here are “crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime."
Peters’ advice to the Trump administration: “Stop beating up on Mexico. They’re friends of ours, the best trading partner. And an extremely important ally…And we’d like someone to hear us,’’ he said. “There’s not a lot of appreciation…for how important Mexican trade is — not just for Texas, and New Mexico and Arizona and California, but the whole country.”
Peters, who represents California’s 52nd Congressional District — which includes San Diego, Coronado and La Jolla — sat down with POLITICO California before Friday’s 2107 Congressional Lunch sponsored by the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. There, 500 business leaders from both Mexico and California convened to hear from a bipartisan panel of House members including Peters, his fellow Democrats Rep. Juan Vargas and Susan Davis, and Republican Reps. Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter.
The San Diego Democrat, first elected in 2012, said that even as the Trump administration has made border issues a lynchpin of its agenda and budget, it has failed to reach out to legislators, like himself, who are at the epicenter of border politics in the region — and who are deeply concerned that White House policies are threatening “millions of dollars in economic activity,’’ and millions of jobs in a region where international cooperation has produced prosperity on both sides.
“It’s really counterproductive to have the Trump administration taking about a wall, a border adjustment tax -- and this attitude about Mexico like they are not our friends. They are good friends to San Diego.”
Some excerpts from the conversation:
POLITICO: Your response to AG Sessions saying cities like San Diego are “crumbling” under the weight of crime from the border?
Peters: “We always crow about San Diego and El Paso being two of the safest cities in America, which is true. In San Diego, we view the border as an opportunity, not as a threat.”
POLITICO: What’s your view of Trump’s border wall proposal -- and his requests for billions to build it?
Peters: “There’s so many better and more cost effective ways to deal with security. What’s the issue with border security? It’s the one percent of cargo that contains stuff you don’t want coming in — whether it’s drugs or guns. And so what you do for that is not build a wall..that can be tunneled under. And can’t really be physically constructed. You hire more customs and border patrol agents -- more blue shirts. Fewer brown shirts. You employ better technology to catch that stuff, and you would save so much money — and get the job done.”
POLITICO: What about the business concerns here on the border?
Peters: “When I was first elected in 2013, I went to Jerry Sanders — the former mayor, who’s head of the Chamber now -- and asked, “What’s the most important thing we can do for the business community in Washington D.C.?” And he said: “The border waits are killing us. They were two hours up to four hours. The funding had stalled for the San Ysidro Border Crossing crossing, which is the busiest land crossing in the world...So frankly, the five of us (in the House delegation) worked together to get that done. The Democrats worked together, speaking to the President and the Senate at that time..and we got Darrell (Issa) and Duncan (Hunter) to get help us put that into the budget. And I think it was one of the biggest expenditures for infrastructure in that two-year cycle, and now it’s on track, almost done. The waits are way down. It was tens of thousands of jobs, and millions of dollars in economic activity from these delays….it means money on both sides of the border.”
POLITICO: What’s about Trump’s view of this issue?
Peters: "It’s really counterproductive to have the Trump Administration taking about a wall, a border adjustment tax — and this attitude about Mexico like they are not our friends. They are such good friends of San Diego….The Senate took the right approach in 2013, which was probably more armament than border security than we would want, but that was the compromise Democrats had to make to get permission slips for the workforce, reunited families and people coming out of the shadows and paying taxes. That was a good plan. We couldn’t get a vote on the House floor. But now we’ve taken a step backwards with Jeff Sessions in charge.”
POLITICO: “What about comprehensive immigration reform? Will it happen -- and what’s the cost if it doesn’t?
PETERS: “In 2013, who was for comprehensive immigration reform? The Chamber of Commerce. The AFL-CIO. The tech community. The faith community. The farmworkers — and the farmers. Because everybody knows this is an important part of our workforce. Around here, we have a lot of scientific jobs. I think 60 percent of our scientists are immigrants in California….we want to be the center of this brain-powered economy -- and we are scaring away scientists. People are afraid to go to work because they’re afraid of being rounded up. They’re getting their kids documents prepared in case the parents are shipped off. It’s just awful.
POLITICO: “What other worries are you hearing from constituents here?”
Peters: “Our three drivers here in San Diego are tourism, the military and science and technology...we’re one of the top three biotechnology regions in the country, and in clean energy technology too. We’ve checked in with The Navy; if we don’t pass the 2017 budget, they’re talking here about five ships that won’t be available to sail just out of the Western region — and 15 worldwide...the money for the wall? That’s, by the way, (the cost of) one and a half aircraft carriers.
POLITICO: With 100 days of the Trump administration this week, the president has been pushing repeal of Obamacare again and says the GOP has a “great” plan to replace. Your response?
Peters: “I think it’s not great. And I think people hate it… We’re going to go back to the model we had before effectively. And going back to losing your house to pay your medical bills is just not where we want to go….“People are terrified. I spoke to (University of San Diego) medical students, and faculty members who said now the children of some of these undocumented people are citizens, but the parents are too scared to take them to the doctor even if they have cancer. So they wait until they go to the emergency room where they don’t have to have documentation. And it’s too late for the kids...they can die. It’s tragic.”
POLITICO: What’s the chances of the GOP's health care plan passing?
Peters: “We’ve heard nothing from Trump, in a direct way...he’s got nobody working there, and the level of administrative chaos is just astounding, when you think of his work as a business person. But when you think back about his business, it was a family business about which hotels to open, it wasn’t running a multi-faceted operation."
"Now, they’re the dog that caught the car. They’re in charge of it all, so in addition to having these ideological divisions within their conference, they have no experience on passing legislation.”