Politics & Government

Yoder plays to both sides in immigration debate

U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, with his wife Brooke.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, with his wife Brooke. File photo

A month ago, Rep. Kevin Yoder said that separating migrant children from the adults who brought them across the border illegally was necessary to keep them safe from traffickers and drug cartels.

Eleven days later, after a public uproar, the Kansas Republican dramatically changed his tone.

He fired off a sternly worded letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, demanding an immediate halt to "the practice of separating children from families at the border."

Yoder told The Kansas City Star that he'd gotten an earful from constituents who "were really upset" about the separations, and that their objections helped push him to look at the issue differently.

“I think all of us, including the media, were learning more what was happening on a daily basis and all of us as we became more aware of the mass amounts of family splits that were happening the more concerned we became," Yoder said in an interview on June 29.

“And of course the (Trump) administration was telling us this was the only option," he said. "… That wasn’t fully accurate and clearly there was a third pathway."

Yoder is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican members of the U.S. House in November. He's seeking re-election in a suburban Kansas City district that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won by a single percentage point in 2016.

Now he finds himself in the midst of an election-year maelstrom over immigration as he takes on a new role as chairman of a powerful subcommittee responsible for funding the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and overseeing efforts to beef up border security and immigration enforcement.

For Yoder, the question is whether there's such a thing as middle ground on an issue as polarizing as immigration.

Yoder says there is middle ground, and he's found it.

“I think we need to enforce the rule of law. I think we need to enforce our borders, but I think we can do it humanely," Yoder said. "And I think there is an obvious clear pathway here where we enforce the law and we do it compassionately. I think that’s the middle ground.”

It was in his capacity as newly minted chairman that Yoder took a fact-finding trip to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas on June 5 and 6.

He told a Kansas radio station that he primarily heard stories during that trip about children being separated from their parents before crossing the U.S. border, not after.

"These aren't necessarily parents; in some cases, it's a minor that has been attached to an adult to get them across the border," Yoder told KMBZ. "Not all of these cases are what you would think; these minors are being trafficked and being used."

He elaborated a few days later. In a newsletter on June 12, Yoder wrote that for “actual families” crossing the border illegally to seek asylum, “laws do not allow children to be housed with their parents while we sort out their case.”

Yoder wrote that he didn't want to see parents separated from their children, and stressed he was committed to finding a humane solution. But he noted, "even if we want to hold a family unit together for a longer period of time, we are forbidden from doing so."

Those positions largely reflected hardline GOP and White House talking points on the separations.

Then came the backlash.

On June 15, the federal government announced that nearly 2,000 children had been separated from their parents or adult guardians at the border between April 19 and May 31 as a result of Trump's "zero tolerance" for illegal border crossings.

Public outrage over the separations erupted over Father's Day weekend.

On June 18, Yoder demanded an immediate end to the separations in his letter to Sessions.

Yoder, though, hadn't completely shed his tough-on-immigration views. His rapid turnaround on the family separation controversy was followed later that week by his vote for a hardline immigration bill.

That bill, named for its sponsor, GOP Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, would have reduced legal immigration by as much as 40 percent, in part by eliminating two categories of legal immigration: siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

It also would have authorized billions for Trump's border wall and required employers to submit all hires to the federal government's web-based e-verify system in order to confirm their eligibility to work in the U.S.

The bill significantly toughened the standards for those seeking asylum and did not provide a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Instead it would have given those who qualified a temporary, renewable work permit.

Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder urges fellow members of the U.S. House to pass the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act that would speed up green-card process for highly sought workers.

Yoder voted for the hardline bill even though it didn't include language from legislation he's sponsoring that's designed to speed up permanent-resident status of well-educated legal immigrants from India, China and other highly populated nations now facing strict limits on their access to green cards.

“It was supposed to be in the first bill … and there was some confusion," Yoder said. “Honestly, I think the leadership team gave up on the (hardline) bill … I think they gave up on trying to improve the bill.”

The press releases and newsletters Yoder sent out calling himself "a leading Republican voice" in the effort to stop family separations —and taking credit for helping to convince the Trump administration to end the practice — rankled pro-immigration advocates, especially in light of his vote on the hardline bill.

Neither the White House nor DHS responded to inquiries from The Star to fact-check Yoder's claims that he helped change the administration's stance on family separations.

“I feel like he’s paying lip service,” said Dustin Hare, a business analyst from Kansas City, Kansas, who helped organize a 300-person pro-immigration rally outside Yoder’s district office after his vote for the hardline bill, which fell short of passage. "He’s trying to appease both sides without really saying anything."

Hare and others at the protest said Yoder's newfound compassion for separated migrant families conflicts with campaign literature the congressman has distributed that emphasizes his hardline stance on immigration enforcement.

Yoder has sent fundraising emails pledging to "stop the flow of drugs and dangerous criminals into our country," and his campaign has hung fliers on door knobs in the district that state in capital letters that Yoder is committed to "DEFENDING OUR HOMELAND by authoring the bill to provide funding to SECURE OUR BORDER and STOP ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION."

Hare does give Yoder “some credit to him for speaking out” about family separations.

“I think it emboldened others to do the same… I think there’s some merit to that for sure,” he said.

Still, he thinks Yoder is “riding that line and not really doing anything” to resolve the situation at the border.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said Thursday that the administration has now identified nearly 3,000 children who have been separated from their parents. None of those families has been reunited as of yet.

Yoder said in a statement Thursday that the administration "must work around the clock to reunite these families as quickly as possible, and I will support the resources necessary to do so.”

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a liberal immigrant advocacy group, is skeptical Yoder will follow through in a meaningful way. "He preens as a hero and he acts like a party hack," Sharry said of Yoder.

Already at least one liberal group looking to flip Yoder's seat from red to blue has launched an ad in his district featuring the audio of migrant kids crying after being separated from their parents.

The ad from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee began airing last week on HGTV, Bravo, Lifetime, Oxygen, and OWN: "This is Trump's America. Is it yours?" the ad says, over the sounds of children sobbing for their mothers and fathers. It doesn't mention Yoder by name, but urges viewers to "Remember in November."

A week after the hardline bill failed, it was anti-immigration advocates' turn to be disappointed by Yoder when he voted for an alternative GOP "compromise" bill. That legislation failed by an even wider margin than the hardline bill.

The more moderate compromise bill also would have cut legal immigration and funded a border wall, but it would have provided Dreamers with a path to citizenship through a new merit-based visa program. It did not mandate the use of e-verify.

“I think the second bill was better for sure, but the first bill was definitely better than the status quo," Yoder said when asked to explain why he voted for both.

“Question I always ask with legislation is: Will we be better off?” he said. By that measure, Yoder said, even the hardline bill was better than current law “for both Dreamers and hardliners.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform says that Yoder’s vote in support of that legislation will be reflected negatively when its voting report is released.

The Federation, also known as FAIR, has been designated a “hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a label the group disputes. It supported the hardline immigration bill.

“The so-called compromise bill is a lot longer on amnesty and a lot shorter on enforcement measures,” said Ira Mehlman, FAIR's spokesman.

Numbers USA, a group that advocates for reducing immigration, gives Yoder a B-minus rating this year, docking him points for votes he's taken to increase the number of visas for foreign agriculture workers.

While Yoder's record is "very strong on immigration enforcement ... on the flip side to that, he’s somebody who views immigration as a way to provide businesses with a surplus of foreign labor that tends to benefit the business community," said Chris Chmielenski , the group's deputy director.

"At the end of the day it helps the business owners and it doesn’t necessarily help the constituents in his district," Chmielenski said. "It allows businesses to simply claim they can’t find American workers and gives them access to foreign workers through the immigration system."

One of those with an eye on Yoder is Leon Fresco, general counsel and strategist for Immigration Voice, the main advocacy group backing Yoder's green card legislation.

Yoder took up the legislation after his office reached out to Fresco last year. Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer from India, had been murdered in a hate crime in Yoder’s district, and the congressman was seeking ways to help Sunayana Dumala, Kuchibhotla’s widow who lost her immigration status when her husband died.

The green card legislation has 325 co-sponsors — nearly every Democrat in the House and more than 100 Republicans — but Fresco said that the vitriolic nature of the overall immigration debate has hampered it from moving forward despite wide bipartisan support.

He predicted that Yoder’s elevation to subcommittee chairman will strengthen his influence over the larger immigration debate.

“He is going to emerge as a very thoughtful leader,” said Fresco, who led the Department of Justice’s immigration litigation office during President Barack Obama’s final three years in office. “You’d want someone like Yoder there, not an ideologue, someone who sees this issue from its entire perspective.”

But Sharry, the pro-immigration advocate, said if Yoder was really interested in fixing the immigration system, he would have worked with Democrats on legislation that could actually pass instead of only negotiating with Republicans on bills that had no chance to become law.

"He wasn’t interested in protecting Dreamers or the Indian community, he was interested in protecting himself, his incumbency," Sharry said.

"If he was influential with his own party he would have gotten a vote on his bill, but he couldn’t."

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise