Tennessee Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais drew ire for his hard-lined immigration stance last week in telling a little girl that her undocumented father, who is facing deportation, must leave the country. Even after the little girl fired back on Tuesday, upset that DesJarlais wasn’t more helpful, the lawmaker is still defending his position, saying he was just trying to give eleven-year-old Josie Molina an honest answer.
“We have a very generous immigration policy,” said DesJarlais on MSNBC Friday. “We are a nation of laws, we have immigration laws on the books–sometimes not being enforced probably the way they should, so there’s a lot of confusion, a lot of grey zones. But bottom line is, we have an immigration problem in this country, and we need to enforce the laws we have on the books.”
DesJarlais was holding a town hall meeting in Murfreesboro last week, when Josie stepped up to the microphone to ask what she could do to keep her undocumented father from having to leave the country. The Tea Party-backed Republican thanked her for her question, and then said plainly to the cheers of the crowd: “We have laws and we need to follow those laws.”
According to the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which posted now-viral video of the exchange, Josie’s father is currently facing deportation proceedings, which have driven the 11-year-old into therapy for anxiety.
Josie, joined by her mother Megan Macaraeg, an organizing director for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said on MSNBC Tuesday that she was mad at DesJarlais for his response. “I was hoping that he would say something that was more, like, helpful,” she said, adding that she was “used to” the threat of losing her father.
Despite these cases of families facing separation, DesJarlais said Friday that “we can’t simply just make exceptions if people are not following the laws.”
He added that, “If we travel to another country, we don’t leave and go to the airport without a passport. When we go to a country, such as Mexico, we obey, we respect, and we understand that we have to follow the laws.”
When Congress reconvenes next month, comprehensive immigration reform is expected to be one of the biggest hurdles on the agenda. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that the GOP would get more blame than Democrats should an immigration deal fall through. DesJarlais said he was less concerned about those numbers than he was with “doing the right thing.” He poured cold water on the idea that comprehensive reform is necessary, and illustrated concerns that the bipartisan bill which passed the Senate in June faces diminishing prospects in the Republican-controlled House.
“I think the Senate bill is somewhat the Obamacare of immigration,” said DesJarlais. “When you try to pass comprehensive reform, obviously, you don’t always get things right.”
“Again, I’d return to the fact that if we would enforce the laws on the books first, we might not need as much reform as people think,” he said.