Local residents and attorneys, activists and elected officials had mixed reactions Wednesday to President Donald Trump's recent speech calling for a border wall as the partial government shutdown dragged on.
Trump urged congressional Democrats to fund his long-promised border wall in a televised address Tuesday night that was heavy with rhetoric on immigration.
He said the wall was needed to resolve a security and humanitarian "crisis," blaming illegal immigration for what he said was a scourge of drugs and violence in the U.S. and asking: "How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?"
Alfredo Estrada, an attorney at Burke Costanza & Carberry LLP, said some of the information presented in the president's speech did not match with the reality of what's happening at the nation's southern border.
"I think there's some things that were taken out of context, and one is that the number of illegal immigrants encountered by (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) on a daily basis at the southern border are at the thousands," Estrada said. "Generally the apprehensions and encounters have been at a decrease at the southern border since the early 2000s."
Estrada said if someone states they have fear of persecution in their home country at any border, they are considered legal asylum seekers by current U.S. immigration laws and should not be counted as an undocumented immigrant.
Last September Estrada spent a week in Dilley, Texas, giving pro-bono legal services to asylum seekers at a family detention center.
"I saw firsthand what's going on at the southern border," Estrada said. "What's going on at the southern border are women who are afraid of being raped, kidnapped, sold and passed along to gangs as property, who are fleeing to the United States. What's going on in the southwest detention center is babies being jailed with their mothers."
Estrada said there are several other forms of immigration law reform that would be less costly and much more effective than a wall.
"Our government and democracy are best served when there's discussion on all issues that affect Americans' lives," Estrada said. "No one issue should dominate the discussion, nor should it hold hostage the government's ability to serve American citizens, and that's what's currently happening today. The current shutdown demonstrates the present inability by Congress and past inability of Congress and the past administrations' and current administration's failures to adequately address an outdated statutory makeup for immigration law."
'I wanted an electric fence'
Trump hoped to gain the upper hand in the standoff over his demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. In his speech, Trump listed a string of statistics and claims to make his case that there is a crisis at the border.
He also sought to put the blame on Democrats for the standoff, saying they "will not fund border security." House Democrats passed legislation the day they took control of the House that offered $1.3 billion for border security. And Senate Democrats have approved similar funding year after year.
Trump said the nation’s southern border “is a pipeline” for large supplies of illegal drugs, and that thousands of Americans have been “brutally killed” by those who enter our country illegally. The Associated Press has disputed Trump’s claim, pointing to a multitude of studies that show people here illegally are less likely to commit crime than U.S. citizens, and legal immigrants are even less likely to do so.
Paul Graegin, 54, of Highland, said he believes Trump’s speech is proof that “whatever is coming from the southern border is not good for the United States.”
“The answer is the people who want to come into the country, they need to do it the right way, they need to apply for citizenship. I don’t think a big wall is the answer. I didn’t want a wall. I wanted an electrical fence,” Graegin said. “But do I like how he’s holding the government hostage for this? No.”
Richard Dwight Carlson, of Griffith, said a better job must be done at securing the nation's borders.
"This is about security and as a whole, it's a very complex issue," Carlson said. "We have a lot of technology that could help. It's not just about building a wall. ... We've got to put a stop to this. There are heartbreaking stories of wives and mothers who have lost their child to drunk drivers here illegally."
Asked to provide comment on Trump’s call for a border wall, U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, said Wednesday it’s unacceptable that political leadership “does not exist to find common ground so that basic government operations can fully and effectively be provided for the benefit of all Americans.”
“My immediate priority ... is to reopen all of the currently closed federal agencies, and we should also enact comprehensive immigration reform that improves national security by strengthening protections across all borders and points of entry and defends workers by holding employers who abuse human labor accountable,” he said.
Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, argued Trump’s speech made it clear why border security is so important.
“But Democrats are refusing to address the humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border. The sooner we agree to secure our border, the sooner the entire government can reopen,” Young said.
'It's quite visible'
Meanwhile, NWI Resist, a local activist group that came into existence to protest attempts to bring detention centers in Hobart and Gary, has successfully raised enough to rent a billboard aimed at bringing attention to weekly deportations at the Gary/Chicago International Airport.
Ruth Needleman, a leader of NWI Resist, said the billboard magnifies the group’s voice in the ongoing debate on ICE deportations, Trump’s call for a border wall and the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
“It’s quite visible. That’s the goal,” she said.
The billboard — which reads “STOP Gary Airport Deportations” and “Families Belong Together!” — is along eastbound Interstate 80/94 between the Indianapolis Boulevard and Kennedy Avenue exits. Needleman said the $2,000 raised allows them to keep the billboard for two months, but the goal is to raise more.
“We have it in a place where the buses coming from the Kankakee prison to the airport would have to pass it,” she said. “We want people to know that all deportations from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky leave from the Gary airport every Friday. And our airport has almost been a designated garbage zone. We do the work that Chicago airports won’t do or don’t want to do,” Needleman said.
The Gary Jet Center — not the city administration — contracts with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency that uses the facility for deportations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.