Sen. Cortez Masto On Immigration, Opposition to Trump

May 1, 2017

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto speaks to voters in Reno at a recent town hall
Credit Paul Boger

President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office have been contentious, to say the least. The Republican administration has sought to put the country back on a "winning track by reforming health care, immigration and taxes." However, Democrats like Nevada’s freshman Senator Catherine Cortez Masto have worked to keep the president’s legislative victories to a minimum.

Reno Public Radio’s political reporter, Paul Boger, sat down with Senator Cortez Masto to get the latest on those efforts, and what she sees as the best way to move America forward.

Tell me about the last four months; how's it going so far?

Sure, since January 3. It was important for me with all of the issues that we are seeing, let me break them down for you [sic]. The first one really is immigration. You know, it started with rhetoric on the campaign trail by this administration really trying to focus on tearing our families apart, calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. It's this racist, divisive rhetoric that has continued into the White House with the executive orders that the administration has pushed out.

One of the executive orders really focuses on engaging in mass deportations. The other executive order is a ban on Muslims. So, what I have done is worked with my colleagues. The first legislation that I introduced, and I'm very proud of it, is to rescind the executive order that engages in mass deportation and then I signed onto several others and co-sponsored other legislation to rescind the other executive orders that are harmful to many members of our community.

The other thing that was important for me was to focus on legislation and co-sponsor legislation on areas where I've worked, victims of fraud legislation that I co-sponsored. [I] co-sponsored legislation addressing victims of sex-trafficking.

For me there are other areas of focus that are important to Nevada as well, letters to the administration addressing what they're going to do with marijuana enforcement. As you well know, it is important for me to continue to uphold the state's marijuana laws that we have passed for medical and recreation, and like everyone else, I want answers from the administration on what type of enforcement they're going to engage in.

Let's go back to the first thing you mentioned on immigration. I'm curious: How do you go about protecting, at least, the policies of the Obama administration and move them forward into the Trump administration?

You talk about the benefits of immigration and the fact that, really, we have a broken immigration system and the answer to that is passing comprehensive immigration reform. It is not building a border wall that will only waste taxpayer dollars and is not necessary. Even the border patrol agents have said we don't need a border wall, and you can't do it. You physically cannot build that border wall along the border that this administration would like to do.

Part of this is addressing, well, we have a broken immigration system so let's sit down and have a common-sense solution to it, and that is passing comprehensive immigration reform.

What is comprehensive immigration reform?

It's a combination of things because I think we have over 11 million undocumented in this country. There is no way we are going to engage in mass-deportation. We don't have enough law enforcement resources to do so, and I don't think people even realize right now we already spend $20 billion annually on immigration enforcement. That's more than we spend on all of the other federal enforcement agencies annually. So there's no way we can continue down this path.

That means we put people on a pathway to citizenship. We take them out of the shadows. That doesn't mean that at the end of the day they go to the front of the line or we don't hold them accountable for coming to this country, but we have to keep them here and put them on that pathway. At the same time, we can continue to protect our borders and our national security. I don't think either is mutually exclusive.

Most importantly for me, as somebody who was attorney general here for eight years and worked with local, state and federal law enforcement on protecting the community from violent criminals, I will tell you the undocumented immigrants in this community are not the violent criminals. Statistics will show that, but at the end of the day, we also want to make sure law enforcement has access to all available tools to protect our communities, even at our borders. That means investing in new technology, investing in resources that will continue to aid our law enforcement in everyday law enforcement activities.

President Trump released his proposed budget a few weeks ago. I wanted to get your take on that at this point.

I think it's, first of all, ridiculous and would devastate not only the state of Nevada but many community programs across the country. It is an overall cut and slashing of just about every program at the federal level that benefits our communities from devastating our community development block grants that we have relied on, local governments have relied on to help and assist people on so many different levels.

Listen, I was just at Catholic Charities and they provide programming for the homeless, shelter care for the homeless and meals on wheels for our seniors. That would devastate those communities and take away any type of care or treatment.

They're proposing a 13 percent cut to the Department of Education. That's about $9 billion. That would take away any type of after school programming, any type of teacher professional development programming. They want to divert with that public funds away from our public schools into private choice programs. It would devastate so many things in our communities including our environmental issues that we have fought for, clean water and air and I can go on and on.

The good news is the administration doesn't appropriate the funds, Congress does. I will tell you many of my colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, are not going to stand for those devastating cuts.

But, you have to admit that the federal government seems, at this point, to have some sort of a spending problem. The national debt is excruciatingly high. So where do you make up that gap? Where do you propose those cuts, because they've got to come from somewhere at some point?

Right, no. There is no doubt about it. I think that's part of this discussion, not these draconian cuts but there should be a commonsense way we all come together and figure out how we address it. I know that I've seen studies that show if we had passed the Senate, bi-partisan version of immigration, comprehensive immigration reform out of the Congress and the president had signed it, that would have contributed over $300 billion dollars to our communities and reduced our national deficit. So there are commonsense ways that we can approach this if we work toward that goal. It isn't engaging in draconian cuts that are going to be harmful to many communities.

But I'm curious, though, you're a freshman senator in the minority party, how do you build consensus? How do you build momentum and get things done at this level?

Listen, you build relationships with your colleagues to find common ground. That's no different when I was here as attorney general. As attorney general, I got to introduce legislation over the eight years that I was here and there were over 40 bills that I introduced that were passed out of our legislature. Those 40 bills they were always supported by Democrats and Republicans and always signed by a Republican governor. That's because my goal was to build relationships with my colleagues, talk about what we're trying to solve at the end of the day and bring all the key stakeholders together to figure out how we pass good laws and legislation without unintended consequences and unfunded mandates. That's not going to change for me in the United States Senate. I'm already reaching out to my colleagues whether they're Democrats or Republicans to find, to build those relationships and find common ground where we can work together.

The common thread through all of this has been for you, it seems, an opposition to the majority party and an opposition to the Trump administration. You're talking about building consensus, so where do you go from here?

Let me just clarify, I'm not going to stand for anybody that's going to harm anybody in this country or engage in discrimination or racism. I will always stand against that and that's what you see coming out of this administration. I'm going to be vocal about it and I'm not going to stand for it. If they want to work on issues that are going to promote and grow the economy and keep jobs here and be a benefit to our communities and the people and businesses here, of course, I'm going to work with them.

Reno Public Radio also reached out to Republican Senator Dean Heller for an interview. That request went unanswered.