U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins, a Republican representing the Kansas 2nd Congressional District, discussed immigration and his work in Washington, D.C., during a nearly hour-long stop in Parsons Tuesday.
Labette County Commissioner Doug Allen opened the town-hall style session in the city commission room of Parsons Municipal Building and introduced elected officials in attendance. State Sen. Dan Goddard, a Parsons Republican, gave a brief update on state government before Watkins spoke.
One of the issues Goddard mentioned was roads and bridges and the fact that eastern Kansas has many more bridges than the rest of the state. Watkins said he studied engineering in college and is a “builder at heart.”
Watkins said four of Kansas’ five representatives in Congress have an interest in or background in building. The country has 200,000 miles of roads in disrepair and 46,000 bridges that need attention.
He lived and worked in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for a time and that city is the envy of the world for its infrastructure. Watkins said America is the strongest, richest, most generous country on earth, but Dubai has it beat in that respect.
“They really in many cases have superior construction to us at this time in world history,” Watkins said.
So congressmen and women are discussing how to pay for infrastructure improvements that will cost billions if not trillions of dollars. He said he prefers small government, but options discussed to fund these improvements include taxes on gas or tires.
“We’re working our way through that” and will continue to work in a bipartisan manner on it, he said.
The freshman congressman reviewed his work since taking office in January.
He’s fielded more than 2,303 calls and responded to 6,175 pieces of mail. Tuesday’s stop in Parsons was his third town hall of the day. He said constituent case work is important to him whether those who contact him are Republican or Democrat.
In Congress, Watkins serves on three committees: Education and Labor, Veterans Affairs and Foreign Affairs. He also serves on five subcommittees of those panels.
He has co-sponsored 177 pieces of legislation and introduced six pieces of legislation. Five of the six pieces have bipartisan support and one was signed into law.
Watkins also mentioned several pieces of legislation in Congress. One is the U.S., Mexico, Canada Agreement that is supposed to replace NAFTA. He thinks the issue could come to a vote in October. The issue is key to a Kansas economy that sees $4.4 billion in exports to Mexico and Canada in a year.
Another bill would enhance credit opportunities in rural America and this would apply to towns that have 2,500 or fewer residents. It would allow community banks to make loans at a lower interest rate and spur growth, he said. The legislation is tied to improving rural health care in underserved communities.
Watkins also answered questions from the 32 people who attended the town hall.
One man asked about the GOP’s support for President Donald Trump’s initiative to secure borders and implement a merit-based immigration policy.
Watkins said he visited the border in Texas two weekends ago. The immigrants are searching out authorities, not hiding from them. He claimed drug cartels are facilitating the migrants’ travel. If the people haven’t paid the cartels for their transport by journey’s end they may be seized by cartels and held hostage.
“Nobody wants that stuff,” Watkins said.
Watkins supports Trump’s idea to build a border wall. He defended the cost, saying the U.S. spends $10 billion before breakfast. But the wall should be part of a more sweeping solution to the immigration issue.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes, Texas, developed a bill that would require migrants to seek asylum in their home countries rather than doing so at the U.S. border and overwhelming resources. This could remove the problem from U.S. borders with Mexico and take the issue to U.S. embassies or consulates in these countries. Hurd announced recently that he’s retiring from Congress.
“There’s something about that that makes good sense to me,” Watkins said, but he would want to discuss the issue further before endorsing it.
“This is a complex situation that I think will require a complex answer unfortunately.”
Parsons Police Chief Robert Spinks asked about federal help in fighting drug crimes in Labette County. Southeast Kansas is still considered a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and formerly benefited from $500,000 in federal money to fight drugs. He asked Watkins to considered federal help that would benefit the new drug task force operating in Labette County to “expand our small effort” to combat marijuana, opioids, fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Watkins said he would do what he could to get the resources needed.
Watkins also said he supported measures that promotion election security and would investigate requiring photo IDs for voting. He also said the perceived anti-American sentiment by some serving in Congress upset him. He thinks elected representatives can have different views but should get behind America.