JEFFERSON CITY — A special Senate committee opened testimony Wednesday on migrants entering the U.S. and their effect on Missouri.
The panel, which is set to meet between now and Jan. 1, was formed by Senate President Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, to look at ways to identify or discourage “illegal immigration.”
Yet, it’s not clear if the committee’s existence is aimed more at addressing a growing problem or if it is a continuation of a Republican effort to make the nation’s southern borders a political issue.
Schatz is running for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate and the chairman of the committee, Sen. Justin Brown, R-Rolla, is in the midst of a primary election challenge by Rep. Suzie Pollock, R-Lebanon.
Brown said illegal drugs that are coming across the southern border are burdening local law enforcement and social service agencies.
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“Our federal government has failed to make progress in stemming the tide of illegal immigration that is plaguing our country, so it’s imperative the states take action on their own,” Brown said.
He also said it has become an issue for businesses.
“They are taking jobs from Missourians. The state is not getting any benefits,” Brown said. “The state is being cheated out of tax revenue.”
The hearing comes at a time when huge numbers of migrants have been coming to the U.S., many of them crossing swift rivers and canals and scorching desert landscapes. Migrants were stopped nearly 240,000 times in May, up by one-third from a year ago.
On Monday, the bodies of 51 migrants were discovered on the outskirts of San Antonio in what is believed to be the nation’s deadliest smuggling episode on the U.S.-Mexico border. More than a dozen people were taken to hospitals, including four children. Three people have been arrested.
On Wednesday, the panel heard testimony regarding workers being brought to Missouri illegally who do not pay taxes or follow Missouri labor laws.
Rep. Jim Murphy, a south St. Louis County Republican, said migrants are entering the county carrying drugs “creating death and destruction in our cities.”
“What do we do to curb the import of drugs into our cities?” Murphy said.
Murphy also said state law needs to be tightened to address companies that illegally use undocumented laborers.
Ben Terrell, a legislative liaison for the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said the agency does not look at immigration status when investigating labor complaints. Rather, those issues are typically forwarded to the federal government.
Sen. Doug Beck, D-St. Louis, agreed that the agency should crack down on companies that “exploit” migrant workers by skirting state tax laws and paying them cash.
Joyce Mucci, a former field representative for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told the panel that the state should require all companies operating in Missouri to use an electronic verification system to check the citizenship status of employees.
“It’s a deterrent,” said Mucci, who said she was relying on a study by former Kansas Secretary of State Chris Kobach, who works for a scandal-tainted border wall group.
Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, slammed Mucci for calling migrants “illegal aliens.”
“It’s very offensive,” Washington said.
FAIR has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, saying its leaders have ties to white supremacist groups.
Missouri politicians have long used immigration as a cultural wedge issue, like guns, abortion and transgender rights.
In October, for example, Attorney General Eric Schmitt traveled to Texas to announce the filing of a lawsuit seeking to restart construction of former President Donald Trump’s failed border wall.
Schmitt, who is running for U.S. Senate, joined Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton along the banks of the Rio Grande, just west of downtown El Paso, to announce the lawsuit.
Schmitt also has joined with Paxton in a lawsuit seeking to reinstate a controversial Trump administration program that required asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for decisions in their U.S. immigration cases.
One of Schmitt’s GOP opponents, former Gov. Eric Greitens, also has said the U.S. should continue building the border wall.
Rep. David Gregory, R-Sunset Hills, who is running for state auditor, has invoked the southern border in his campaign, even though the auditor has little to do with immigration policy.
The launch of the committee follows an announcement by Gov. Mike Parson that Missouri would join 25 other states calling for the establishment of the American Governors’ Border Strike Force, a multi-state effort to disrupt criminal organizations, combat human smuggling and stop the flow of illegal drugs.
Brown said the next hearing is scheduled for July 20.