White House

‘I just want to look:’ Lindsey Graham plans visit to the southern border with VP Pence

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham will travel with Vice President Mike Pence to the southern border Friday to see firsthand the conditions at federal immigration detention centers.

The South Carolina Republican will make the trip at a time when the Trump administration is facing intense criticism for how federal law enforcement officials have handled the influx of migrants seeking entry into the United States, particularly their treatment of children traveling alone or separated from their families.

Press reports and eyewitness accounts from elected officials detail boys and girls sleeping on concrete floors and drinking toilet water. There have also been allegations of sexual assault.

“I haven’t been, so I just want to look,” Graham told a small group of reporters on Wednesday. “I do want to get to any abuse allegations, but I just know the flow is overwhelming. Word’s out on the street, if you apply for asylum here, you’re just not going to go back.”

Graham’s trip also will follow several weeks of attempts to negotiate with Democrats on legislation to address the humanitarian crisis at the border — negotiations that could be on the brink of crumbling, to the extent they were ever making progress.

Chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham has a bill that would, among other things, force immigrants to make asylum claims in their own countries rather than allow them to wait until they reach the U.S. border to do so, at which point it becomes easier to gain entry into the United States.

Graham had planned on moving the bill through his committee last month but agreed to postpone consideration to discuss with his longtime partner on immigration policy, U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, ways of turning Graham’s bill into a vehicle for expanding some opportunities for legal immigration.

Before the July 4 congressional recess, Graham met with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to see if her members would consider accepting his asylum legislation in exchange for increased foreign aid to Central America, which the Trump administration has threatened to cut off as the border crisis continues.

On Wednesday, Graham said Central American aid was the offer he hoped to put on the table in another meeting with U.S. House Democrats planned on Thursday.

“I’m trying to ask (Democrats), ‘What do you want? Are you willing to entertain applying for asylum outside the United States for a period of time to stop the flow? What do you want in return?’ ” Graham said.

So far, Democrats haven’t shown an interest in Graham’s proposal to change existing asylum laws. Graham wouldn’t say whom he intended to sit down with on Thursday, but U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told The State he was not aware of any meetings.

Meanwhile, Graham’s patience for reaching consensus appears to be running thin.

“I’m not going to vote for $4 billion every 90 days,” he said, referring to a $4.5 billion bill Congress passed at the end of June to help federal authorities deal with immediate needs at the border.

Though Graham underscored the need for accountability regarding “bad apples” who might be mistreating detainees, he said it was Congress’ fault for letting the situation get out of hand by not passing new laws to solve the problem.

“I promise you, I’m in the camp that anybody in the military — Border Patrol, anybody who hurts somebody or violates the standard — they’re going to be held accountable. But nobody is holding us accountable,” Graham said. “We’re just pointing fingers.”

Graham’s trip to the border Friday could exacerbate his frustration, especially as Democratic senators have, according to Graham, declined the invitation to accompany Republican colleagues on the visit with Pence — a development Graham called “disappointing.”

“I’m gonna try to meet with people and see if we can get something down. If not, we’ll just mark up our bill and take it to the public and let the public decide if there’s a crisis at the border or not,” Graham told The State.

The only way to ensure a bill gets to President Donald Trump’s desk is for Democrats to get on board: They control the U.S. House, and in the U.S. Senate their votes are necessary to help legislation clear procedural hurdles.

If Graham moved his bill through the committee without Democratic support, it would be a purely messaging exercise.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who will accompany Graham on the border trip Friday, said he expected the trip’s finding to reinforce the importance of congressional action.

“I hope it’ll be able to shed some light on the conditions down there,” Hawley said, “and the need to act.”

McClatchy reporter Bryan Lowry contributed this report.

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.