U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine says the current wave of immigrants showing up at the U.S.-Mexican border should be considered refugees rather than illegal immigrants because they are fleeing for their lives, not seeking economic opportunity.

King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, appeared Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to talk about the immigration crisis that erupted after the Trump administration started separating immigrant children from their parents in May, a practice President Trump stopped last week following a national outcry over repeated false claims that he had no power to do so.

King said that under U.S. law, immigrants have the right to seek refugee status.

“This is very different than the waves of illegal immigrants coming across the border 15 or 20 years ago from Mexico simply for jobs,” said King, speaking from Brunswick.

King offered a contrasting view to an earlier guest, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., about what the country should do about people entering the U.S. from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, Central American countries wracked by gang violence.

King said he disagreed with Lankford’s idea of defunding the Flores agreement, a 1997 federal court decision that limits the detention of immigrant children to 20 days and led the Trump administration to start separating immigrant children from their parents. “It doesn’t make sense,” King said of Lankford’s proposal.

King said the immigration system needs more judges instead. “There is a bureaucratic backlog,” he said.

King said it can take a year or longer for a refugee claim to be adjudicated.

“The question is what do you do in the interim,” he said.

King suggested there might be a possibility of compromise between some Republicans and Democrats to solve the crisis.

He said he was surprised to find himself sitting in the office of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, last week with both Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“There is an opportunity for a Feinstein-Cruz bill. When did you think that would ever happen?” King said.

King said he wants to figure out what is going on in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. “I have been trying to figure out what we can do to stabilize these regimes,” he said.

King said the U.S. government should stop the practice of detaining immigrants seeking asylum and look for alternatives to ensure that asylum seekers continue through the legal process. He said data show there are alternatives that are a lot cheaper than detaining immigrants while they wait for their asylum claims to be processed.

“We are a nation of immigrants, except for African-Americans, who were brought here against their will, and Native Americans. We are asylum seekers. The Pilgrims were escaping religious persecution,” he said.

Asked by “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd whether he would agree to fund Trump’s proposed border wall in exchange for other immigration concessions, King said the Senate already tried that and it didn’t work.

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“Ironically, we did that. It was in a sense DACA for the wall,” King said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

King said an amendment of his that was co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., had the votes in the Senate to provide full funding for the wall and create a path toward citizenship for the undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers who entered the country as children with their parents.

“We had the votes. They had the wall in their hands and they let it go because they wanted more. They keep raising the ante. … That is one of the problems. We never know where the goal line is,” he said.

Todd asked King what he thought about a proposal by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

King said that would go too far. He said the country needs an agency to administer immigration laws. But, he said, the actions of the agency should be examined.

“That is part of our responsibility to provide oversight,” he said.

King said he has questions about some of ICE’s actions, such as the traffic stops in Maine last week that resulted in the arrest of a Haitian national and nine drug seizures during the 11 hours the U.S. Border Patrol stopped southbound traffic on Interstate 95 in Penobscot County.

“There are a lot of questions to be answered,” he said.


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