Amy McGrath stood with a microphone in her hand on a hot July Saturday, making her pitch to a crowd that spilled out of two tailgate tents.
The Democratic candidate talked about why she wants to represent Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District. She talked about compromise, bipartisanship and her stance on health care. She told a story about how her students at the Naval Academy often couldn’t tell if she was a Republican or a Democrat.
Then, she turned her attention to immigration.
“I care about secure borders,” McGrath said. “We absolutely have to have it. Folks, I fought for my country. I fought to have secure borders. We want to know who’s coming into our country. But that mother with the four- or five-year-old kid who made this incredible journey just to get to our borders is not the enemy.”
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“She’s not a criminal,” someone in the crowd shouted.
“Exactly, they’re not criminals,” McGrath said.
Amid a national debate over immigration that has both sides fuming, McGrath and her Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, are carefully picking their paths through the polarized rhetoric as they search for support in Central Kentucky’s tightly contested congressional race.
The difficulty for Barr is the anti-immigrant sentiment that helped propel Trump into the White House, manifesting itself in the unpopular “zero tolerance” policy that separated immigrant families at the border. For McGrath, it’s the rising “Abolish ICE” movement and the backlash to Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, of which the Pew Research Center estimates around 50,000 live in Kentucky.
McGrath was making her pitch in Anderson County, a place Donald Trump won with 72 percent of the votes. Though the line for the potluck at the opening of her field office blocked the sidewalk on Main Street in Lawrenceburg, it’s the county that delivered Barr his third-highest vote percentage in 2016.
But that was then and this is now. McGrath launched a campaign focused on the rural voters of the district. And with a temperamental president in the White House, the Central Kentucky district that Trump won by more than 15 points is considered a potential Democratic pick-up this fall.
“Right now, the line has been drawn that the right wants to build a wall and the left wants to abolish ICE,” said Les Fugate, the communications director for former Secretary of State Trey Grayson and a Republican lobbyist in Frankfort. “Even if you don’t have that position, you’re voting for someone in leadership that might push that position.”
Barr supports the broad themes of Trump’s hardline immigration approach, but his votes have shown a more nuanced approach. He supports legislation to prevent families from being separated at the border, but in the same breath he calls for DNA testing at the border to ensure the familial relationships of people entering the country and to prevent human trafficking.
He voted for two bills that would have increased protections for those known as Dreamers, the children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as young children. But he was quick to point out that neither bill created a special pathway for those immigrants to become citizens and stressed his desire to make it easier for the children of legal immigrants to stay in the United States.
“I think our immigration system is broken at almost every level,” Barr said in an interview with the Herald-Leader.
He suggests three major changes: stronger border security, a more efficient guest worker program and more support for interior security through immigrations and customs enforcement.
Barr supports Trump’s call for a wall along the southern border though he uses the term loosely to represent heightened border security, including surveillance equipment, fencing and, in some places, a wall. He voted for two bills, HR 6136 and HR 4760, that would have appropriated money for Trump’s wall, as well as improvements to security along the border. Neither bill passed the House.
He also is pushing for reforms to the legal immigration system. Along with supporting a merit-based green card system, Barr signed on as a co-sponsor to a bill that would eliminate per-country caps on the number of high-skilled workers who immigrate to the United States for their job and raise per-country caps for people who immigrate to the United States because of family located here. The bill has not made it out of the House.
“I believe we are a nation of immigrants and we are a nation of laws,” Barr said. “The United States is one of the most generous countries in the world when it comes to immigration and asylum.”
Meanwhile, McGrath has attempted to find the middle, distancing herself from the left of her party on immigration.
As protesters in Louisville have camped out in front of the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement building and the Ronald L. Mazzoli Federal Building, McGrath criticized the movement to eliminate ICE.
“Our immigration system is very complex and the reason it remains a problem is Congress,” McGrath told the crowd in Anderson County. “It is not a problem because of the agents on the border or because of the ICE agents. Folks, these guys are awesome, patriotic Americans who are doing their job, who are doing what they’re told to do. And so the blame for any of these problems right now does not rest on them, it really doesn’t.”
ICE does not make the number of individual arrests in Kentucky available to the public. The Chicago branch — which covers Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri and Kansas — made 8,604 administrative arrests in the region in 2017 and 5,327 removals, which is up from the 7,055 arrests and 2,326 removals in 2016.
Though she defends ICE officers, McGrath has been quick to condemn Trump’s immigration policies. After a trip to the border in early July with Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and other veterans running for office, McGrath firmly denounced Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, which resulted in the separation of families at the border.
“The family separation policy is absolutely wrong,” she said in Lawrenceburg, weeks after the Trump administration backed down and ended the policy. “It is wrong and cruel.”
Beyond calling for a strong border and sympathy for people seeking asylum, McGrath has offered few details.
Her campaign declined to make her available for an interview for this article. Instead, it directed the Herald-Leader to an advertisement it purchased in several newspapers and posted on social media that talked about her trip to the border.
In a debate on KET during the Democratic primary, McGrath displayed a willingness to compromise on immigration issues.
“If we can get 900,000 Dreamers, DACA recipients, to become full citizens in exchange for Donald Trump to get 20 miles of a wall so he can put a red hat on and take a picture and call it a win, you know what, I’ll take that deal,” McGrath said after calling Trump’s border wall stupid. “Because that’s what we need to do to move forward.”
McGrath’s response came after state Sen. Reggie Thomas, one of her opponents in the primary, accused McGrath of supporting Trump’s wall, something Thomas said he would never do. By distancing herself from some of the district’s most liberal Democrats on immigration, McGrath risks alienating the same people who are most upset with the Trump presidency.
It’s a risk Jonathan Miller, a Democrat and former state Treasurer, said McGrath probably won’t have to worry too much about her base.
“I think we’re going to get a lot of folks on the left vote to put a check on Trump, even if McGrath is too conservative for them,” Miller said.
The question then becomes whether she can convince the many Democrats in the district who routinely vote Republican to embrace the nuance of her immigration policy, which calls for a strong border while encouraging sympathy for people who come to the country illegally.
It might be a tough sell.
“Have you ever seen nuance work in political campaigns? Fugate said. “I think in an issue as complicated as immigration, nuance is really difficult.”