U.S. Representative Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham is running for re-election this year in New Mexico’s first district. She sat down with Gwyneth Doland to discuss critical issues for voters as part of KUNM’s special election coverage with New Mexico PBS.
Her Republican challenger Richard Priem did not respond to multiple interview requests from New Mexico PBS.
DOLAND: First, you’ve been in Congress now since 2013, what do you think are your greatest accomplishments in that time?
LUJAN GRISHAM: I would say actually three things. One, I’m actually passing legislation in a climate where most members of Congress are not passing bills and getting their amendments through. Two, I’m very proud of getting the secretary of the Air Force to stop studying the jet fuel spill but actually pump and treat that environmental disaster. And the third is that we’ve created real trust, I think, in our office about doing constituent services in a way that’s actually fixing and solving peoples problems because if you don’t do that, I think people really lose faith in both their government and their elected leaders.
DOLAND: You have said you want to help Congress create jobs by investing in anti-poverty programs. What kind of programs are you talking about there and how are they going to create jobs in New Mexico?
LUJAN GRISHAM: I'm going to go back one component there which is; there’s always a debate, right? Business creates jobs. Government does not create jobs. And I think this sort of teeter-totter one side’s up, one side’s down makes no sense. It’s a collective effort. I just was at the wind project ground-breaking in Torrance county and the reality is, it’s those tax credits—local IRB tax credits—and private investment. It’s everybody working together. The same has to be true in anti-poverty programs. What I mean by this is we’ve got to figure out ways so that women, single heads of households, aren’t working three jobs to keep a roof over their head and food on the table. They can never catch up. They’re always going to be tied to public benefits because for a $200 raise, you lose $600 in food, housing, and childcare subsidies. So if we’re investing in creating an opportunity where we’re not making these kinds of Draconian choices, we will create independence. We create a better work force. We create better jobs. We all win in that environment. So anti-poverty programs and partnerships to leverage our current economic footprint.
DOLAND: You talk about how much the benefits go down when the salary goes up just a little bit but isn’t there also a cost to government in these anti-poverty programs.
LUJAN GRISHAM: Well, there are, but there’s a much greater cost to government when you don’t do it. Crime, corrections, healthcare, emergency care, foster care, all of those issues are exacerbated even now as we’re debating in this community. Frankly, the whole state, our public safety issues and our crime issues, if you don’t invest in creating a different dynamic so that you’re addressing poverty, then you’re spending far more money on the other side dealing with the tragic end results.
DOLAND: This year, border control agents apprehended more than 18,000 people crossing the New Mexico border illegally. That's more than three times the number that crossed illegally four years ago. It is unclear how many of those people intend to stay in New Mexico and how many are just moving onto other states.
LUJAN GRISHAM: And unclear also about what percentage really is the unaccompanied minors and their moms—not quite unaccompanied but not whole families—because they’re coming from a very dangerous central American region because Juarez is now one of the safest places for people to cross.
DOLAND: Well, it highlights the fact that our immigration system needs to be improved.
LUJAN GRISHAM: Agreed.
DOLAND: How do you think we should do that?
LUJAN GRISHAM: Well, I think that the comprehensive approach that we got to, and then Congress had a melt down over immigration reform, is still the best platform. There’s plenty of bi-partisan support. In fact, I think all the Democrats signed what we call a discharge petition, which says look, if we get enough people on the discharge petition, then you got to give us a vote. Because if you let us vote on the immigration package, it will pass. Now, interestingly enough, we couldn’t get the Republicans to sign the discharge petition. But no question, they would have voted on the bill. Here, they get to support their conference or their caucus but their constituents want immigration reform. I think you’re going to see the same kind of impetus after the national election. That we’re going to get immigration reform done. It’s one of the number one issues. You got business, you've got public safety, you've got [agriculture], you've got the faith based community. There is not a constituency that doesn’t want us to address it. We let politics get in the way in Congress and it’s something that all of Congress should be ashamed of.
DOLAND: Is this number, 18,000, and the fact that it is a dramatic increase over the past 4 years, is that a problem for you, that there are so many people coming into this state without proper documentation?
LUJAN-GRISHAM: Well, yeah, we can't just have an environment where we have no idea about why that's occurring and what the impact is, all of the different socio-economic impacts, by having a population that is not here legally right? They're undocumented. So, what we do know is that the impacts we can have is creating an economic and public safety environment that prevents people from leaving right? People don’t want to leave their homes. In fact, if you talk to New Mexicans, who leave New Mexico in search of jobs, most of them don’t want to leave and then a vast majority try to get back. I've got a family member, my oldest daughter in that equation. Had to leave for a job, worked really hard to get back and continues to work hard to stay. So you know we did a huge economic investment in Panama. In meeting with the Mexican parliament, and several of the leaders in Central America, it is clear that we need to do more. We did do congressional economic investment in Central America, and I think if we really focused on creating both doing something about the drug cartels and really doing something about an economic environment, then we can slow the economic traffic. In fact, when Mexico's economy was better, we slowed immigration or un-documented movement from Mexico to the U.S. So we know that works.
DOLAND: On the subject of guns, almost half of New Mexicans have a gun at home and that is a significantly higher number than the national average but we also have one of the highest rates of gun deaths in the country and in the past few years we’ve seen a big increase in the number of people who are injured by guns. How do you balance gun rights, which New Mexicans clearly value, with the need to protect people from gun violence?
LUJAN-GRISHAM: First, and I think most responsible gun owners agree, and in fact the NRA, not now, but earlier was very supportive about increasing criminal background checks for gun buyers, about closing the gun show loop-hole, about making sure that anybody that’s on the terrorist no fly list, I mean there are easy practical things. The balance also can be derived by making sure that we identify this as a public health issue. Look, when states really do something about protecting women. I’m going to use women in this equation, it’s not always women who are the victims of domestic violence but by far the vast majority, when you have laws that restrict access to guns, by domestic abusers, we increase the likelihood that women are safe by 50 percent, that’s a huge number. So we know that there are things we can do to make us all safer without minimizing your second amendment rights. Why aren’t we studying gun violence? We have an epidemic in this country. There is no reason that the CDC and the National Institutes of Health should not be treating it as a public health issue. My personal public health rights are not diminished by identifying public health issues, they are only enhanced.
DOLAND: Speaking of public health, on the subject of healthcare, we are approaching the open enrollment period, where people who have bought Obamacare can change their plans or sometimes their plans or ...
LUJAN GRISHAM: ...are mandated to do it.
DOLAND: Some of their plans are disappearing and they have to get a new one. Many people are finding out that their rates are going up again. Do you believe that Obamacare is working?
LUJAN GRISHAM: Well you have to dissect it a bit. The fundamental issues that were addressed in the Affordable Care Act, I still think are incredibly meaningful and had to be done, right? So no gender bias or discrimination in the rates, that no pre-existing condition could be denied, that there’s no lifetime caps and that we’re going to invest in prevention. These are huge hurdles that were addressed universally and unequivocally in the Affordable Care Act. It was about access. It was not about cost or quality. We’re beginning to see the negative impacts of that. Congress does not have any regulatory authority over insurance companies and you can see the problem with that because we aren’t dealing with out of pocket costs, deductibles, and co-pays, and insurance premiums–although, the rate of those increases aren’t as high as they could have been. If we didn’t have the Affordable Care Act, you know what I say? Doesn’t matter. If they are being raised every year we’re pricing these products outside of the pocket books for many New Mexicans. So I think this is a Congress that is ready, bi-partisan, in addressing those issues. Not the least of which is, insurance companies are passing onto consumers, so are providers, the cost of prescription drugs. The prescription drug cost escalation epidemic in this country has to be addressed and I think it will be in this next Congress. I’m looking forward to that. I will be on all of those bills and will be leading some my own.
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