Dusty Johnson seems irrationally devoted to the idea that detail and nuance have a place in immigration policy.
The freshman Republican congressman from South Dakota participated in a four-day fact-finding tour along and near the Arizona-Mexico border last week with about a dozen other members of Congress.
Using social media, he tried to show South Dakotans the border through his eyes, with photos and videos that included scenes of a demonstration wall, the shallow depth of the Colorado River along one section of the border, and an apprehension of 42 border-crossers.
In response, he was excoriated by the social-media peanut gallery.
People on both sides of the political spectrum posted comments accusing him of fear-mongering, propagandizing and complicity in a human tragedy, among other sins. One commenter predicted Johnson will suffer an afterlife with the likes of Adolf Hitler, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.
The reactions should have been predictable for Johnson, whose status as a freshman congressman belies his lifelong involvement in politics. But he claimed to be taken aback.
“It’s been surprising to me how angry people on both the far right and far left are,” he said Thursday by phone from Arizona. “I’m trying to play this pretty straight, showing the humanitarian and security issues, and I’m not doing a lot of editorializing at this time, in part because I want it all to sink in before I draw a lot of conclusions.
“But, man, people don’t like contrary information. These pictures caused people who are already dug in to assume I’m trying to make some kind of an argument that I’m not.”
Despite being in Congress for scarcely more than three months, this is not the first time Rep. Johnson has been on the defensive about immigration.
On Feb. 26, he was one of only 13 House Republicans to vote against Republican President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration for border-wall funding. After that vote, Johnson was immediately hit with a tsunami of criticism from hardline Trump supporters, mixed with praise from others.
Then, 15 days later, on March 13, Johnson executed what some perceived as a politically motivated about-face when he introduced legislation to waive environmental reviews that could slow the construction of a border wall. The bill is titled “FASTER” — Furthering American Security by Tempering Environmental Regulations.
Thursday, Johnson said he has always supported a wall but opposes the expansion of presidential power represented by Trump’s emergency declaration.
“We need to secure the border,” Johnson said. “We also need to defend the separation of powers.”
The border tour that Johnson participated in last week was organized by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona. Johnson said his tour expenses will be paid out of the budget for his congressional office.
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Johnson flew to Arizona on Monday, and reaction to the tour quickly turned negative Tuesday morning. Commenters on social media accused Johnson and other tour members of claiming they were watching wall construction at the border, when they were actually about 100 miles from the border viewing a company's demonstration wall.
On Wednesday, Johnson responded to the criticism.
“We weren’t on the border line, but were reviewing construction to be used ‘at border,’” he wrote on Twitter. “In haste & brevity I was unclear. There were a number of local and national reporters there, so I don’t think any member intended to mislead.”
The tour included discussions with border professionals, including employees of the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
On social media throughout the week, Johnson shared information about seismic technology that he said can identify and differentiate between digging, tunneling, foot traffic, animal traffic and vehicles at the border.
He related a conversation with a landowner near the border who gave bottles of water to border-crossers and told Johnson, “They are coming here for a better life. I don’t blame them. I blame our government for not enforcing our laws.”
While witnessing the apprehension of 42 border-crossers — many of them men accompanied by children — Johnson was conflicted. He said some border-crossers essentially rent a child to bring across the border, because an adult Guatemalan with a child can be released into the United States for several years while awaiting an asylum hearing.
“It’s hard to know what to feel,” Johnson said. “On one hand, they have broken the law. And they may also be lying about those children. Every one of those men had a child with them. It was a one-to-one ratio. Maybe that is legitimate, and maybe it’s not.”
The totality of Johnson’s experiences during the tour highlighted the complexity of problems at the southern border, he said.
He thinks a wall is needed to help stop the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs into the country, and he thinks many other actions and policies are also needed.
He would like to expand the fingerprinting of children at the border, he said, to protect against children being used and re-used by adults as tickets into the United States. He’d like to have better cooperation from Guatemala, so Guatemalans who show up at the U.S. border without a legal reason to cross it could be sent back more easily.
And he expects to support other proposals as he learns more about the issue, even if he remains buffeted by the rebukes of extremists.
“There’s no silver bullet,” he said. “I’m frustrated with people who act like a wall alone will solve the problem, and I’m frustrated with the people who think a wall can’t possibly be part of the solution.”