U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson traveled to Central America this weekend to get a closer look at the area’s ongoing immigration crisis and the factors pushing migrants to try to cross the border.
Johnson’s trip came as he is preparing to release a new report on U.S. border security. The report is the result of a dozen hearings and other meetings conducted by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which Johnson chairs.
He said the lack of economic opportunities in Central America fuel problems such as cartels, drug trafficking and human trafficking, which further disrupt the “rule of law” and create more instability that in turn pushes people to flee.
Johnson added that while in Guatemala he visited a shelter for “little girls who were victims of sex trafficking.” One was only 11.
“The degradation is sick,” he said.
Immigration has played a dominant role in the 2016 presidential election, especially after controversial statements from real estate mogul Donald Trump that Mexico was sending rapists and criminals across the border. Johnson said he wanted to shift the debate to solutions.
The first-term Republican senator from Oshkosh is in the middle of his own political battle as he faces a re-election challenge from Russ Feingold, the longtime Democratic senator he ousted from office nearly five years ago. It’s expected to be one of the hardest-fought Senate races in the country next year.
Johnson said his visit to Guatemala and Honduras is intended to help him examine the factors driving people from Central America to come to the United States.
The Obama administration has been trying to stop the flow of immigrant families, especially from Central America, through efforts including launching public service campaigns in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to highlight the risks of the trying to make the journey.
The administration has also said it wants to invest $1 billion in Central America to address the underlying problems that push families and children out of the region.
“I’m highly skeptical,” Johnson said of the $1 billion investment. “It could land in the hands of corrupt individuals.”
The senator’s trip, and his border security report, also focused on issues linked to border security, such as drug smuggling, cartels, human trafficking and unaccompanied children crossing the borders.
“I want to see the conditions on the ground,” Johnson said. “I want to kick the tires down there.”
Johnson shared a draft copy of the border report, which is still being finalized.
“America’s borders are not secure,” the draft reads. “For a host of reasons — national security, public health and safety, and a functioning legal immigration system — this current state of affairs is clearly unacceptable.”
But a Feingold campaign spokesman accused Johnson of being focused on partisan bickering instead of solutions.
“Senator Johnson has always been more interested in fighting partisan battles than actually reforming our immigration policies,” said Tom Russell, campaign manager for Russ for Wisconsin. “He’s just another out of touch politician that consistently puts Washington partisanship ahead of getting real reform.”
Russell specifically criticized Johnson for voting against legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support but never passed the House.
At the time, Johnson said he had hoped to be able to support the bill but didn’t believe it would solve the problem.
“It would have caused greater problems,” Johnson said Saturday. “I don’t regret that vote. It was a really bad bill.”
Johnson said last week that there was no “silver bullet solution” to border security problems. He said things like a guest worker program, which would allow foreign workers to temporarily live and work in the country, as well as a better fence at the southern border, would help.
“Fencing does work,” he said. “But I’m not suggesting a fence the entire way.”