Senator Johnson

February 20th, 2020

I can’t remember when I was last in the old Federal Building in downtown Milwaukee. I suspect it was back in 1976, when I was applying to go to West Point. Or maybe I went there back in the ’80s for something to do with Karin’s immigration status. In any case, it was a long time ago.

I went there on Thursday morning. I parked a couple blocks away on Van Buren. I filled the parking meter full of change and walked in the cold breeze to the Federal Building. The structure feels massive. It’s over four stories tall, and is made of large blocks of stone. The edifice loudly annouces its solidity and permanance. In a world where most things are transient, the Federal Building is meant to last.

I had to go through a security check as I entered the building. Emptying my pockets and going through a metal detector to enter a public building have become normal activities for me. They were not before 9/11. Twenty years ago people could go into court houses and other government offices without being scrutinized by rent-a-cops. Now, in the name of safety, public spaces are definitely unwelcoming.

After I successfully passed through the metal detector, a woman with a badge asked me where I was going. I told her that I was going to Senator Ron Johnson’s office.

She gave me a suspicious look, and asked, “Do you have an appointment?”

“Yes, I do.”

She relaxed a bit and said, “It’s on the fourth floor, all the way to the left.”

I thanked her, and then I found the elevator.

I got out on the fourth floor, and gazed over the edge of the balcony. I could see all the way down to the main floor. The Federal Building has an enormous open space in its center. It is a hall that extends up five stories to a vast set of skylights. There are balconies on each floor that surround this open area. The government offices are all on the outside facing the balconies. The decor is very old school: lots of heavy wooden doors and dark paneling. Everything looks like it was built in the 1930’s, or earlier.

I met some people on my way to the Senator’s office. They were, like me, from the Catholic Coalition for Migrants and Refugees. We were going to meet together as a group with one of Senator Johnson’s assistants.  At 9:30 we all filed into the office, and entered a tiny room that was barely big enough to hold us all.  We sat around a table. There was Tom, Johnson’s right-hand man, at one end of the table. All around were members of our group: Mark, Suzanne, Sister Reg, Father Tony, Twyla, and myself.

Mark ran things. He likes to come to these meetings prepared for anything. He is not terribly comfortable with surprises. Mark did much of the talking. The rest of us chimed in when we thought that we had something worthwhile to say. Father Tony said very little, but he always listened.

The main topic of our discussion with Tom was the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program. The MPP keep asylum seekers lingering in Mexico until their immigration court date in the United States. The MPP are designed to deter migrants. They make it incredibly difficult for asylum seekers to get a fair shake. The MPP encourage migrants to give up and go home, even though they most likely have fled from a country in fear of their lives.

Tom is a good guy. That was my impression anyway. I believe that he has a heart and a conscience. His boss is a rightwing Republican, and a stalwart supporter of Preisdent Trump. Senator Johnson probably has a heart too, but he seems to be totally focused on the enforcement aspect of the immigration issue. He is interested in contolling the borders. Johnson sees that the number of illegal border crossings has diminished under the Trump administration, and therefore concludes that the problem is solved.

It isn’t.

People are still fleeing from violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. People are still fleeing to the United States from the cartels in Mexico. The difference between what is happening now and what occurred under earlier U.S. policies is that now we aren’t giving these migrants any hope at all. Our government is making it abundantly clear to any asylum seeker that their cause is doomed. The suffering is still there. We, as Americans, have simply decided that we don’t care about these people, and we just want them to go away.

They are going away. Some of them are going back to their homes to die.

We tried to express to Tom what we had learned from reports, and from what some of us had seen at the southern border. Tom was sympathetic, but he also made it clear that nothing was going to be changed this year. He told us that Congress had abdicated its duties with regard to immigration reform, and had essentially given Trump permission to do whatever he wants. There would be no action in Congress until after the elections and, even then, maybe there would be no new legislation. He told us that the Senator disliked the President using executive orders to make changes, but Johnson was satisfied with the results of Trump’s actions.

Mark asked Tom flat out, “Why should we keep coming to meet with you when we all know that nothing will get done?’

Tom commented that he had been working for the Senator since 2011, and that people were still meeting with him about issues that they had discussed with him nine years ago. Tom told us that, with the political polarization and the advent of divided government, Washington was broken. This year’s elections might resolve some of the gridlock. Tom suggested that there was still value in meeting with him, because it would be important to have a standing relationship when conditions were finally suitable for bipartisan legislation.

In short, let’s stay in touch, but don’t hold your breath.

Did we waste our time speaking with Tom? I don’t know. We are in this for the long haul. Johnson will continue to one of Wisconsin’s senators until 2023. We have to deal with him. Actually, we have to deal with Tom, because we will probably never meet with the Senator himself. Is it worthwhile to have a positive, yet prehaps utterly fruitless political relationship? Once again, I don’t know.

If we keep in contact with Tom, we probably won’t get any positive answers from the Senator. If we cut Tom off, I know that we won’t get any results.

We might as well keep talking.







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