Late last year, veteran Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith announced his resignation — setting off a scramble to replace him in Texas’s 21st District. Eighteen Republicans and four Democrats will be vying for their party’s nomination in a primary that takes place on March 6.
The south-central Texas district is not on the U.S.-Mexico border, but is about one county removed from it. Thus, issues of border security and immigration arouse considerable personal sentiments among the denizens of the district.
Those sentiments were on display during a flare-up over immigration in the Democratic primary.
Businessman and Iraq veteran Joseph Kopser, a former Republican who is backed by national Democrats, was asked about his views on border security at the Ranchers and Landowners Association of Texas the second weekend of February. The comments have not been previously reported.
“Border security on our Southern border and our Northern border is something we have to focus on,” he replied. He went on to advocate for fences and greater use of technology in the air and on the ground to detect threats on the border. Curiously, he cited his time in Iraq as justification.
“I want to secure our borders because when I spent my time in Iraq, when we were fighting Al Qaeda, the border between Iraq and Iran was not secure, and those fighters came over with Iran and that didn’t do us any good in that fight,” he said. “Nor do I want to allow anyone across our border without us knowing who they are.”
A member of the audience called out, “Are you sure you’re on the right ticket?”
He replied, “I’m on the American ticket.”
Kopser’s progressive opponent, former Capitol Hill staffer Derrick Crowe — who is backed by Our Revolution, National Nurses United, and other Bernie Sanders-aligned organizations — reacted harshly to Kopser’s remarks in a statement to The Intercept.
“I am disgusted, but not surprised, to hear Joseph Kopser comparing the U.S.-Mexico border to a war zone, those who cross it to Al Qaeda, and endorsing border zones condemned by the ACLU,” he said in a statement to The Intercept. “It is unacceptable for Kopser to join Donald Trump in calling for the militarization of our border communities and turning them into war zones.”
In longer interviews about immigration with The Intercept, both candidates agreed on a number of things: They both want to see a solution for the Dreamers so they can stay in America, and they both back comprehensive immigration reform for the 13 million undocumented immigrants in America.
But they differed over how much Democrats should be willing to compromise to get there.
Kopser, for instance, says his starting position would be for a clean DREAM Act. But he thinks that’s not necessarily realistic in this Congress. “Congress often involves a give and take. There are those in Congress that are asking for $15 billion, $20 billion, $25 billion, for enhanced border security,” he noted. “I am willing if I was in Congress to allow that kind of compromise because if you break down the math, that means for only about $20 to $25 to $30,000 per Dreamer.”
He believes this enhanced border security can help combat crime.
“It’s important to point out that the border is unfortunately a source of human trafficking, the likes of which too many Americans don’t appreciate just how terrible it is. And then in terms of the last part of that criminal aspect, you have this very dark and scary terrorist angle of people who are continually trying to infiltrate the American border,” he said.
As for his remarks before the ranchers and landowners, he insisted that he was not trying to draw a direct analogy between Iraq and the Mexican border.
“Was I equating the experiences in Iraq to the experiences in the Mexican border? Absolutely not,” he said. “What I was trying to illustrate to the audience is I know how complex it is, and more importantly, I know what it looks like when you don’t have good border security.”
Kopser also argued that there’s room to compromise on the issue of diversity visas, which the White House and many Republicans want to scale back as part of an immigration deal. “In terms of the visa lottery program, that might be an area where we might reduce some of the numbers, but certainly not eliminate the program,” he said.
Crowe, on the other hand, believes that any amount of negotiation on these issues is essentially ceding the policy field to the right. He is angry that the Democratic leadership caved on the issue in recent budget deals and would prefer they maintain their position that the Dreamers issue should be handled as standalone legislation.
“In a context where Donald Trump and his allies in Congress are using this idea of a border wall and a militarized border as a dog whistle to pump up racial resentment in this country, we should not be giving them a thing on this issue,” he countered. “We should be fighting and sticking to the idea that we’re going to pass a clean DREAM Act.”
On issues like human trafficking, Crowe would focus on a non-militarized approach. “The way to stop the incentive for people to go to human traffickers or to become involved in that system is to create a pathway to citizenship and get our wait times down for the application process in this country,” he said. “That is how you solve that. That is at the root of the problem. And you also need to dial up the penalty for employers who participate in abusive practices to pull people over to exploit them for cheap labor. But there are plenty of ways to deal with that problem without treating the border as a militarized war zone.”
Correction: Feb. 15, 2018
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Joseph Kopser’s first name as Jason. It has since been updated.