A day after flying with President Donald Trump on Air Force One, U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas joined Democrats to push forward an investigation of the Trump administration’s separation of more than 2,500 migrant children from their parents.
Yoder also threw his support behind an effort to make it easier for immigrants to claim asylum if they credibly feared domestic or gang violence. That plan is in direct opposition to administration policy.
Those provisions were added to the same spending bill that would provide $5 billion for Trump’s controversial border wall.
This is Yoder trying to walk a political tightrope.
Yoder’s up for re-election in a suburban swing district where voters narrowly favored Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
Yoder, who has voted with Trump 92 percent of the time in the last year and a half, has to hold onto the president’s loyalists, but also show wavering Republicans as well as Democrats that he’s sensitive to their concerns.
That political high-wire act was in full view as lawmakers considered homeland security spending legislation Wednesday.
Yoder’s family separation and asylum remedies are not yet law — Congress will probably take final votes in the fall — but they earned him praise from immigration advocates and Democrats.
He emerged from the session able to boast of his willingness to act as a check on Trump, at least on the emotionally volatile issues of family separations and asylum seekers.
“Yoder is clearly trying to establish his own identity that will allow him to win both moderate Republicans and Trump Republicans,” said Bob Beatty, professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka.
“In the past he’s called them ‘Yoder voters,’ and it will be the key to him being able to win in 2018,” Beatty said.
The family separations piece addresses the public outrage that erupted after Trump’s administration implemented a “zero tolerance” for illegal border crossings, including families traveling with children and those seeking asylum.
In addition to requiring the Department of Homeland Security to probe family separations and report back to Congress, Yoder’s plan would add language to the committee’s report accompanying the spending bill. It will say Homeland Security “shall only separate a child from a parent if the parent has a criminal history, a communicable disease, or is determined to unfit or a danger to the child.”
It also will restart the Family Case Management Program that was specifically used for asylum-seeking families but discontinued by the Trump administration in June, 2017, said Joshua Breisblatt, senior policy analyst with the American Immigration Council, an advocacy group in Washington.
The program favored case management over detention to ensure the families had access to social and other services, including legal information. It cost $36 for an entire family each day, compared to over $319 a day for family detention, Breisblatt said.
“The restart of this program hopefully will be seen as rejecting the Trump administration’s false choice that it needs to detain families or separate them,” he said.
The committee also passed on Wednesday another bipartisan Yoder amendment he’d authored to reduce the years-long green card backlog for high-skilled immigrant workers. It was a major step toward fulfilling his promise to Sunayana Dumala, whose husband was murdered in a hate crime in Olathe, Kansas, last year.
Dumala was in the hearing room on Wednesday to witness the amendment’s passage.
She flew from Johnson County to Washington Wednesday morning. Her travel was funded by the advocacy group Immigration Voice, a move intended to hold the Johnson County Republican to his promise to deliver the legislation to the president’s desk in the near future.
After the vote, Yoder emerged in the hall to cheers and high fives from the widow and other Indian immigrants from Kansas who had traveled to Washington for the vote. “Hey, hey,” he said spreading his arms wide. Then he enfolded a tearful Dumala into a hug.
“It’s a powerful moment,” said Yoder. “We’ve been working a long time to get to this moment.”
The inclusion of the green card language in the spending bill is a significant step that helps fulfill a promise Yoder made to an immigrant community in his district.
When Yoder took over in May as chairman of the powerful subcommittee responsible for funding the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he promised he’d work to include language from the green card legislation in any spending bill that came out of his committee.
Yoder is the lead sponsor for the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which aims to reduce the green card backlog for highly skilled immigrants from India and China, some of whom have been waiting decades for permanent-resident status.
Under current law, the U.S. each year can issue only 120,000 green cards to immigrants, and no more than 7 percent of those seeking permanent residency can come from any one country. Yoder’s bill would lift that per-country cap entirely for for employment-based immigrants, and increase the per-country limit for visas for those immigrants’ family members from 7 percent to 15 percent.
The popular measure has 325 co-sponsors, including nearly every Democrat and more than 100 Republicans.
But when he tried to include it in his subcommittee’s spending bill, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., made it clear he would object, according to sources familiar with the matter. Goodlatte’s office declined to comment.
Dumala’s visit to Washington came a day after Yoder’s campaign premiered a new television ad during Tuesday’s Kansas City Royals baseball game that features Dumala prominently.
“I believe in finding ways to get things done in spite of the obstacles,” Yoder states in a voiceover as news footage shows Dumala standing alongside the congressman.
Shortly after that, the ad cuts to a scene of Dumala at a kitchen table.
“We have to fix the our broken immigration system so that it works for those who are dreaming of what they can achieve as an American citizen,” Yoder says as the screen moves to a close up of Dumala with a photograph of her slain husband in the background.
Dumala’s husband was fatally shot in February 2017. Gunman Adam Purinton yelled “Get out of my country!” as he opened fire at Austins Bar & Grill in Olathe, killing her husband and injuring two other men.
Campaigning with the victim of a hate crime is part of Yoder’s message of “uniting” Democrats and Republicans.
Though he has voted consistently with Trump, Yoder until recently has appeared hesitant to fully embrace the president’s brand.
A month into Trump’s presidency, Yoder referred to Trump as a “disruptive force to the way the engine moves in Washington and so that’s created a lot of friction.”
He expressed concerns about Trump’s Twitter feed and said that some constituents had reached out to air their frustrations with the new president on a host of policies. Yoder said that in some case he shared their frustrations.
A year and half later, Trump used that Twitter feed to promote Yoder’s re-election ahead of the congressman’s tough general election fight.
Vice President Mike Pence headlined a fundraiser in Kansas City for earlier this month and this week Yoder hopped aboard Air Force One to join Trump during his visit to the city to address the national VFW convention.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said that embracing Trump is complicated for Yoder because his district trends toward Clinton, but the president remains overwhelmingly popular with Republican voters.
“I doubt we’ll see him appearing in a Yoder ad, but smaller gestures like a tweet, a shoutout at an event, or a picture on Air Force One could still trickle down to Republican voters,” Miller said.
Trump is not mentioned by name anywhere in Yoder’s two-minute ad. Instead, the congressman subtly references the change in administrations when he says that “in the last 18 months we’ve flipped the script.”
The ad also features footage of protesters and rioters with the warning that “some are trying to divide us” and footage of Yoder at the border with a plea for greater security “to stop the drugs causing the opioid crisis flowing into our communities,” moments that could be viewed as nods to Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and disdain for protesters.
The ad was produced by Ax Media LLC, a Kansas City-based firm owned by veteran GOP consultant Jeff Roe. Yoder’s campaign has paid more than $105,000 for the ad to air regularly across four Kansas City stations from now through the Aug. 7 primary, according to documents from the Federal Communications Commission.