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When Congress comes to a standstill, it’s local officials who feel the pressure

February 24, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
While Congress debates how to move forward on Department of Homeland Security funding, thousands of county officials from across the U.S. are on Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to act on a wide range of issues, including immigration. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Liz Archuleta of Coconino County in Arizona and Glen Whitley of Tarrant County in Texas about the local impact of political gridlock.
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GWEN IFILL: Now: how gridlock at the federal level is felt close to home.

The Senate and House are locked in disagreement over how to fund the Department of Homeland Security, mostly because they disagree over immigration reform. There was some movement in the Senate today in a game of chess being watched closely by local officials far from Washington.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: On Capitol Hill this afternoon, an offer to extend Homeland Security funding for the rest of the year came from Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Majority Leader: I think we have a responsibility to act here. We have a solution to the problem that deals with both things.

JEFFREY BROWN: McConnell outlined something Democrats say they want, a seven-month full extension of Homeland Security funding with no strings attached. But with it, he is also setting in motion something conservatives want, a Senate vote to block the president’s 2014 immigration actions.

Those executive orders expanded waivers for undocumented immigrants.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: I don’t know what’s not to like about this. This is an approach that respects both points of view and gives senators an opportunity to go on record on both, both funding the Department of Homeland Security and expressing their opposition to what the president did last November.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the Republican House may not support McConnell’s plans. And for their part, Democrats are chewing on the offer.

SEN. HARRY REID, Minority Leader: If he says he will agree to full funding, we will be happy to debate anything he wants to get in with immigration.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, amid the angling, thousands of county officials from the around the country took to the Hill today, lobbying Congress to act on a wide range of issues, including immigration. They’re concerned over the impact on their county-run hospitals, jails and the overall effect on jobs and the economy.

And we asked two county officials to join us to get our hands around what this means on the ground.

Liz Archuleta is supervisor of Coconino County, Arizona. That’s home to the Grand Canyon. And Judge Glen Whitley is the chief elected official of Tarrant County, Texas, home to the city of Fort Worth.

And welcome to both of you.

LIZ ARCHULETA, District 2 Supervisor, Coconino County, Arizona: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fill in the picture a little bit, Liz Archuleta, you first, about why and in what ways this immigration debate here is so important to you. How does it affect your home?

LIZ ARCHULETA: Well, counties are basically the ones that provide social services, health service and criminal justice services, which includes law enforcement.

And so this affects us at a very basic level. We’re concerned about people and about community-building, and our residents are the ones that are uncertain right now as to what is going to happen with immigration reform. And regardless of who they are, we have to provide these services.

JEFFREY BROWN: Uncertainty, is that the key issue back at — in Texas?

COUNTY JUDGE GLEN WHITLEY, Tarrant County, Texas: Yes, uncertainty, certainly.

When Washington fails to act, it doesn’t stop us. We have to continue to deal with the folks. We care about the people in our communities, and we have to act.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, what exactly are you — you’re on the Hill today going around to Congress. What exactly are you saying? What are you asking for?

JUDGE GLEN WHITLEY: Well, one of the things that I would say we’re looking for is to — you know, right, now you have got the DHS. You have got the immigration bill. They are kind of linked hip and hip.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JUDGE GLEN WHITLEY: And they really — we feel like they need to be separated. They don’t need to be holding hostage — one bill hostage over the other.

If DHS isn’t funded, it has a tremendous impact to us on the FEMA-type issues. We’re going into the spring. You have got tornadoes. You have got floods. There’s a lot of uncertainty related there. We need that uncertainty to be taken care of.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what exactly you add to that about what exactly do you say when you go to the Hill?

LIZ ARCHULETA: Well, I would say that immigration reform is needed. It’s something that people have been talking about for years now, and that we’re about serving people.

This is not about parties. You know, this is about people. And so we’re the ones that are on the ground, we’re the ones that are in the grocery store that are having to answer, why is this conversation still happening?

JEFFREY BROWN: But when you go to a congressman, do you say, do this specifically, X, Y and Z, or do you say, just do something, get over the uncertainty?

LIZ ARCHULETA: Yes, we’re saying we need to — you need to act now, that we need to have this comprehensive reform, that there has to be some solution, and that — it’s unfortunate that, you know, the debate is about health services vs. immigration reform.

We feel like there is room for both. And we feel like we’re an example of that at the local level. We solve problems and we’re called upon to solve problems. And we just need to move the conversation to action.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re a Democrat.

You’re a Republican.

You yourselves differ. For example, take the president’s executive action on immigration. What did you think of that?

JUDGE GLEN WHITLEY: Well, I guess I’m glad to see that the courts are going to look at it.

I believe, personally, that he’s gone too far on that particular issue. But, really, from NACo’s standpoint…

JEFFREY BROWN: NACo being the county…

JUDGE GLEN WHITLEY: The National Association of Counties.

And I think it’s important to remember that, from counties’ standpoint, even though many of us are elected in partisan races, when we get together, we actually have to solve problems. Just as Liz said, we deal with people on a day-to-day basis. Our potholes aren’t Republican or Democrat. Our diseases, our viruses, our outbreak of measles or whatever diseases, they’re not Republican or Democrat.

And we can’t ignore the issues and wait sometimes for the federal government to take — to pass a law or a policy. We implement — if they have got one, if they have got a policy, if they have got a law, we will implement it. If they don’t, we still have to deal with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But to get there, you have to get past these political differences.

What did you think of the president’s executive action? Is that a good step forward?

LIZ ARCHULETA: I thought it was a good step forward. I didn’t think it was an overreach.

But I also think it demonstrates that Congress needs to act. The only reason for the president’s executive action is because Congress hasn’t acted. And so I don’t fear that the courts are looking at it, but I also feel that it is within the power of the president to do that.

I mean, that’s been since the beginning of time. Abraham Lincoln used executive action for the Emancipation Proclamation. But it doesn’t take us away from the actual conversation of keeping the eye on the ball, and the ball is that we have to have a legislative action for immigration reform.

JEFFREY BROWN: With what? What has to be in it?

LIZ ARCHULETA: Well, I think it has to be — there has to be several elements to it.

But, first of all, it has to be comprehensive. Second of all, it has to include a guest-worker program. Third of all, I mean, if we’re looking at actual National Association of Counties’ policy on it, we have to secure our borders. We have to have a pathway to citizenship for those who pass background checks.

JUDGE GLEN WHITLEY: We actually passed a — passed a resolution working together…

LIZ ARCHULETA: Right.

JUDGE GLEN WHITLEY: … Democrat and Republican, last summer on the fact that we felt like it was very urgent for Congress to pass that.

And, as I said, secure border, right now, we have college students who graduate in our science, technology, engineering and math degrees, great young people, and then we force them to leave the country, instead of encouraging them to stay. So we need the comprehensive programs, secure the borders, come in with, you know, a way to deal with the undocumented folks that are here right now, and to be able to move forward and go on, getting to more important things.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that last part, the way to deal with the undocumented, is precisely one of the big sticking points.

JUDGE GLEN WHITLEY: Well, and I think, you know, again, when we look and we talk about comprehensive policy, you know, that really outlines several different issues, I personally am looking for a program that deals with the folks that are here.

And in the background checks, if you find that an individual has been a bad actor, they need to be deported, they need to be asked to leave. They need to be forced to leave. At the same time, I think we have to realize that — and this is why we would sometimes like the federal government to be a little bit more flexible with county government.

We have got 50 states. We have got 3,069 counties. The situation may be different in each one of those.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, do you see — given what you have seen from back home and being here in Washington, do you see the possibility for legislation, or are you resigned to it being dealt with through executive action and perhaps the courts?

LIZ ARCHULETA: Oh, I never give up hope that there could be a solution, a legislative action.

I think that what we need is flexibility, and hopefully members of Congress will hear from their constituency back home and will agree to the points that I think we — as you know, as a people in these United States can agree to and see it is a bipartisan issue.

We saw that a few years ago, when we had Senator McCain and Senator Kennedy that agreed on some legislation. And so I think if we continue to talk it out, we can reach to it. It’s just that we have to get there sooner than later.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let’s end on a hopeful note. Right?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Judge Glen Whitley from Texas, Liz Archuleta from Arizona, thanks so much.

JUDGE GLEN WHITLEY: Thank you.

LIZ ARCHULETA: Thank you.

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