Toomey between crisis and the objective middle ground
U.S. Senator Pat Toomey joined AL DÍA News Media at the Union League in Philadelphia for the latest installment of the ongoing Conversation Series on Aug. 1. The Republican senator spoke about the representation of Latinos in his staff, the immigration crisis on the border, as well as financial aid to Israel.
How many Latinos do you have on staff? What is your outreach to the Latino community?
I have several Latinos on my team. I have Nancy Gudino in my Scranton office, who is bilingual and helps with constituents who call the office with whatever issue they may have. We have Alex Interiano, who is my IT manager, and Max Malloy who is assistant to my chief of staff. Overall we have a very diverse office, I have an African-American in the Philadelphia office, a Lebanese-American in my own town office, and two Japanese-Americans in the Washington office. My legal council and my health care experts are both Indian-Americans. I think is an advantage to have a diverse set of backgrounds to help inform my judgement on whatever I am doing.
Senator Casey and I have worked very closely in the appointment of federal judges. We have ushered 10 people through the process, three of them Latinos. Puerto Rican judge Nitza Quiñones Alejandro and Felipe Restrepo, from Colombia, both serve on the federal bench for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. And Cathy Bissoon on the federal bench for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
How responsive are you in terms of the Latino community needs? and how do you respond in terms of setting policies and guiding the revision at the highest level?
I’ve been with Latinos constituents through chamber of commerce groups, that have provided direct input to my office, to me personally and to my staff. So I think there is a good ongoing two-way communication.
We were surprised to learn that you are part of the Congressional Hispanic Conference, so are you Hispanic?
One day I got a phone call from the Díaz-Balart brothers, Mario and Lincoln. They are Cuban-American brothers serving in Congress for a district in South Florida. They knew I am half Portuguese because my mother is of Portuguese descent. I said “sure.” So I am happy to be part of it.
Do you speak Portuguese or Spanish?
No unfortunately. I only speak one language and I do the best I can with that one.
On Aug. 1 Congress failed to vote on the Republican border bill. How do you work with say Sen. Ted Cruz, who seem to have led the efforts to not pass the Republican proposed legislation?
My approach is to find a common ground and try to make progress. And that is with all my colleagues. I think the border situation is really an urgent problem, a serious humanitarian crisis. It is a mass migration at this point that includes a lot of young kids who are taking what is an absolutely harrowing journey in many cases. We’ve got to persuade the families who are taking the risk in sending those kids that this is not a good idea. There is evidence from interviews that people are under the impression that if they get to America then there is no enforcement of any immigration laws and so that they are able to stay forever. That is leading to this huge problem. I am in favor of a legislation that would provide the resources to make sure this kids that are coming across the border first, are humanly taken care of.They should all get a quick hearing with a judge to determine whether they got a legitimate refugee case to make or if they don’t.
According to the United Nations, most of these children are under 12 years old and have legitimate asylum cases. How do we deal with that?
I think the way to deal with that is to separate the legitimate asylum cases from those that are not. We need to have a conversation about what is the criteria we should use to grant asylum. It is true that the countries they come from have very high crime rates, but there are high crimes rates in parts of almost every country in the world. And that factor has never been part of our criteria, so if we wanted to sign that that’s now an adequate criteria, we could take that decision. But then there are huge implications. We should certainly provide a legitimate hearing to bring to test the case that’s been made but we should base that on objective criteria.
The House of Representatives proposed that legal representation be provided for these children. How can we make sure they will get a fair hearing?
That is a good point. There is a certain age were you would certainly need some kind of help, but I think part of the responsibility will fall to the judge to make sure that the person before him is one way or the other aware of their rights and that is where our criminal justice system works, for instance, to make sure that the person it is getting a fair hearing.
According to the U.N., Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. How do we deal with the fact that after being subjected to dangerous and terrible conditions, we will be sending these unsupervised children back to their country?
The important thing is not to subject more kids to the terrible circumstances you just refer to, on the way to the United States. And if the prevailing notion that if kids get to America they can stay for ever continues, we will have more kids subject to those terrible circumstances. If there is a legitimate asylum case, then I want to make sure we give have a robust legal process that determines that.
In 2013 the U.S. provided $58 million in foreign aid to Honduras in contrast to $3 billion to Israel. Why the disparity?
I am not an expert on foreign relations, I am not in that committee. But let me say this, I think there has been a lot of examples where foreign aid doesn’t end up doing much to help people, a lot of times the corruption in these government means that the money ends up in the pockets of corrupt political leaders. So I don’t assume automatically that sending money is going to be helpful. As far as Israel goes, I think is pretty much a unique situation. Is a thriving successful democratic society that shares our values and our principles that is surrounded by very hostile states, some of which openly declared that their purpose is to wipe out Israel off the map. The aid we provide is virtually entirely for security measures for its defense, and I think is very important because they are an important ally. Frankly, is also in American’s interest. We have all seen the success of the Iron Dome, where Hamas have launched over a thousand missiles aimed indiscriminately in the direction of the city hoping to kill civilians. With American assistance the Israelis have developed technology to shoot those missiles out of the sky before they land.
You supported judge Nitza Quiñones, who happens to be openly gay, but you also voted yes on a Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex marriage. In which cases do you think a gay person should have the same rights and protections as any other person?
I have been an employer in government and the private sector and I don’t ask people whether they are gay because it is not relevant to me. I want to know if the person is qualified to do the job, if they have integrity and work ethic. That is the only criteria that I care about. When it comes to marriage there shouldn’t be anything that stops people from having whatever relationship they want to have, the question on my mind is what relationship do we consider to be a marriage as a society. In my view for a very long time we have consider one man and one woman to be the criteria, that is not to say that there are many other important relationships. To make a definite answer for that I would want to think through what are all the possible scenarios.
Latinos are the least insured demographic in the United States. What is your position on Governor Corbett’s HealthyPA initiative regarding Medicaid expansion? In what ways should our government take responsibility for the health of the most vulnerable citizens?
I have not drilled down into Governor Corbett’s proposal. Believe me I have enough on my plate in Washington to try to keep track of what they are doing in Harrisburg. There is a very broad agreement in our society that we should have a functioning safety net that includes health care for people who can’t provide health care for themselves. Medicaid is the standard that we have used for that purpose and I think there are reforms that we need for that program.