U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar called for a far-reaching overhaul of the nation's handling of immigration Tuesday, including a revamp of U.S. foreign policy and involvement from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Speaking at a forum in south Minneapolis, the freshman Democrat said the United States is "losing our moral high ground" on the issue under the Trump administration.
"What we face is not an invasion," she said, referring to the president's rhetoric on the issue. "This is not an invasion, it's an immigration crisis."
The comments followed a day of fresh turmoil for the congresswoman, whose policies and personal life have been the subject of scrutiny throughout her swift rise from state legislator to a national political figure. Earlier Tuesday, the wife of Omar's political consultant submitted a divorce filing alleging that her husband has been having an affair with the congresswoman. Omar, who declined to comment to the Star Tribune, told WCCO-TV Tuesday that she is not in a new relationship. A representative for the consultant's firm also declined to comment.
Omar did not address the allegations at the Tuesday evening forum and ignored requests for comment after the event before being whisked out a back entrance by her security staff. She focused her remarks on solving what she called a "broken system."
"We're all here tonight because we all recognize that immigration is one of the defining civil rights and human rights issue of our time," she said.
Immigration has once again emerged as one of the nation's most polarizing political issues, as Trump makes securing the southern border and deterring illegal border crossings a crux of his agenda and rhetoric heading into the 2020 election.
Democrats, meanwhile, have recoiled at the president's rhetoric and policy, criticizing recent raids conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), reports of squalid conditions at processing and detention centers, and a "zero-tolerance" policy at the southern border that includes separating minors from parents who face detention and deportation. Members of both parties have gone to the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months to survey conditions.
Omar has been among the most vocal critics of the administration's policies and ICE more generally. She has long called for abolishing the agency and this summer co-sponsored legislation that would prohibit federal agencies from using the word "alien" in reference to immigrants in the country illegally.
Omar, who is herself a refugee from Somalia, has also sparred publicly with Trump over the issue and his views. That feud ramped up earlier this year, after the president attacked Omar and other members of "the Squad," a group of progressive women of color serving in Congress, on Twitter, saying they should "go back" to where they came from. Omar has said those comments, and the attacks and threats that followed, motivated her to continue fighting for rights for all immigrants and minorities.
Omar's often sharp attacks on Trump took a more muted tone on Tuesday.
The congresswoman said responsibility for the current situation goes beyond any single administration. But she criticized the Trump administration's support for foreign aid to certain Central and South American governments, which she blamed for exacerbating migration, and what she called the "unconscionable" detentions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally for minor infractions.
"There is no good way to detain immigrants," she said, recalling a visit to a facility used by ICE in Sherburne County. "We are treating people like criminals when they have not committed a crime."
The event, which included a panel discussion featuring immigration advocates and experts, drew a small and largely supportive crowd. Minneapolis resident Tom Lonergan said he backs Omar's approach of wanting to "treat people with decency [and] follow the law but not use the law to put up a barrier" to those seeking asylum.
"I think people are more fearful of coming to events, of being in the world, than they were before Trump was elected," he said.
Republican Party of Minnesota Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan disputed Omar's characterizations and backed the president's approach. She blamed Democrats for the gridlock. "President Trump and Republicans in Congress have been working to address the crisis at the border while Democrats have been more interested in obstructing to score political points," she said in a statement.
Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049