The Slatest

Kirsten Gillibrand Is Making a Move on Immigration

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 12:  U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks to members of the media as she leaves after a news conference December 12, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The lawmaker held a news conference to discuss 'the Stop Underrides Act of 2017,' legislation designed to prevent deadly truck underride crashes, which occur when a car 'slides under the body of a large truck, such as a semi-trailer, during an accident.'  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speaks to members of the media at the Capitol in December. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Late last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill that would require immigration and border agents to document their stops, searches, and interrogations. From Vox:

Under current law, agents from both departments have broad authority to stop and question people about their immigration status. In the 100-mile border zone — the area of the US that’s within 100 miles of a land or water border — agents can pull over cars and board vehicles to ask passengers about their citizenship if they suspect a person is not in the country legally. (In the rest of the country, ICE agents can’t enter private property without a warrant or pull over vehicles without probable cause of an immigration violation.) But the law doesn’t require agents keep track of whom they stop or why, unless the agents detain someone or end up using force.

Gillibrand’s bill would require agents to report basic data and the justifications for each stop. That information would be compiled and made available to Congress and the public regularly. According to Vox, the bill was inspired in part by videos showing Customs and Border Patrol agents questioning travelers that went viral earlier this year.*

Since the initial travel ban in 2017, social media has played a significant role in liberal discourse over immigration policy under Trump. Viral stories about particular deportations are common, as is rhetoric assailing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A Twitter campaign to abolish the agency prompted MSNBC’s Chris Hayes to ask potential presidential contender Sen. Kamala Harris whether she supported the idea in March. She does not, but a small cadre of House candidates do, including Randy Bryce, a mustachioed Democratic contender for Paul Ryan’s seat who is popular with the left.

This talk and revulsion to Trumpism make it likely that immigration activists are going to demand a lot from Democratic presidential contenders come 2020. It’s possible that they’ll give Gillibrand a particularly hard time. Although she’s since swung decisively left on the issue, Gillibrand began her tenure in Congress as an immigration hawk representing a rural, heavily Republican, and heavily white district in upstate New York. Her platform from this period can be read on an archived page of her old website:

In Congress, Congresswoman Gillibrand has been a firm opponent of any proposal that would give amnesty to illegal aliens. The federal government must provide the necessary resources to secure our borders, which is critical for America’s economic and national security. She strongly supports legislation that would significantly increase the number of border patrol agents and place sophisticated technology along the Southern border to catch human and drug smugglers […] In addition, Congresswoman Gillibrand believes English should be made the official language of the United States and she opposes providing non-emergency taxpayer benefits to illegal aliens.

When asked to explain her former views on an episode of 60 Minutes in February—after calling Donald Trump’s immigration policies “racist”—she referenced the composition of her district. “I came from a district that was 98 percent white,” she said. “We have immigrants but not a lot of immigrants, and I hadn’t really spent the time to hear those kinds of stories about what it’s like to worry that your dad could be taken away at any moment.” But as 60 Minutes’ Sharyn Alfonsi pointed out, Gillibrand had spent a decade in immigrant-dense New York City and presumably heard accounts of the impact of deportation from the press, not to mention from immigration activists in her own party.

If primary voters have a difficult time believing that excuse, she’ll have to conspicuously bolster her credentials on the issue to compensate. Gillibrand’s made some good moves since Trump’s election. She demonstrated against the travel ban, for instance, and was among the Democratic senators that were willing to shut down the government over the DREAM Act in the winter. Her latest immigration bill might be a sign that she plans to lean a bit more heavily into the issue.

Correction, May 14, 2018: This post originally misidentified U.S. Customs and Border Protection as Customs and Border Patrol.