Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., discussed immigration, tariffs, gun violence and other topics during a Milwaukee Press Club event Friday at the Newsroom Pub.
Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, opened the visit by giving an update on the southern border. He pointed out that one of his main goals as chair is to revise the asylum-seeking process to help deter the flow of undocumented immigrants into the U.S.
He cited the reinterpretation of the Flores Settlement in 2015 as a watershed moment in immigration. This settlement established a policy that released undocumented minors and one parent from immigrant detention centers, giving minors in immigration detention “the least restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs”. Johnson said the Flores settlement has complicated the asylum seeking process and is one of the causes of the sudden influx of immigrants.
Johnson cited statistics from the Customs and Border Protection agency to show that undocumented immigration has increased dramatically since the settlement, claiming that approximately 312,000 undocumented immigrants have been detained this year claiming asylum or between ports of entry, 38,000 of which were unaccompanied minors and 248,000 of which were in family units. This count does not include unaccompanied adults.
Johnson’s immigration proposal, which he said would modify pre-existing law, is called Operation Safe Return. This would involve overhauling the system to determine the validity of asylum claims through intensive interviewing and returning asylum-seekers who did not meet the criteria.
When asked, Johnson did not specify if resources in Operation Safe Return would go toward stopping domestic human trafficking, claiming that he wants to slow immigration flow before addressing those problems.
“We need to turn this into a safe, legal process,” Johnson said. “I believe we have to take this one step at a time.”
In lieu of President Donald Trump’s new plan to impose 5% tariffs on Mexico starting June 10, Johnson reinforced his previous stance against taxes but said he did not want to undermine what he believed to be the president leveraging his position.
Johnson said he hopes negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico will eventually result in Mexico signing a “safe third country” agreement, allowing Central American immigrants to apply for asylum in Mexico rather than the United States. Critics have claimed that Mexico does not have adequate infrastructure to provide services for asylum seekers.
One of the primary concerns that the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs faces is cybersecurity. When questioned on the importance of protections to prevent interference in U.S. elections, Johnson said it is very difficult for voting machines to be hacked and that all necessary steps are being taken to secure elections.
When asked if Russia had influenced the 2016 election, Johnson responded with “that’s probably an accurate statement.”
Johnson emphasized the importance of the American electorate being informed and discerning the difference between reputable news sources and fabricated stories being produced in other countries.
When asked if Trump’s “fake news” claims affected the ability of Americans to discern between true and false facts, Johnson defended the validity of the press but did not criticize the president outright.
“There are no heroes in this story,” Johnson said of the relationship between Trump and the press.
Johnson said he would not support an alternative regime where the press is not “free and open.” While he said he has never spoken to Trump about the issue, Johnson said he would never personally devalue the contributions of the press.
“It wouldn’t be particularly productive for me to raise that issue (with Trump),” Johnson said, claiming that his time with the president is very limited and he usually only gets time when he is addressing a specific issue.
Johnson went on to address a carousel of issues at Friday’s event, including Obamacare, deficit spending and the Mueller report. Johnson said he was disappointed in the handling of the Mueller investigation and believed that Mueller was “the wrong person for this job” because of his concerns about the state of the intelligence community.
“It’s a shame that Mueller muddled the issue,” Johnson said.
The conversation eventually turned to gun violence. Johnson asserted his position that “the best solution is hardening schools.” He said “gun-free zones” were the “stupidest policy” in preventing gun violence, adding that he wants potential shooters to wonder if school officials also have guns.
Johnson went on to say that he would be in favor of heightening security through advanced surveillance, locks and further police presence. He said he would support arming school faculty members after rigorous training.
Johnson did not say whether he is considering a potential 2022 senate or gubernatorial campaign, but he noted that he was being highly encouraged to do so. Johnson has garnered a reputation since November 2018 as the “Last Man Standing” as the only Republican to still hold statewide office.