Government & Politics

Kansas protesters demand Rep. Davids commit to closing immigrant detention centers

Last summer, when she was running for the Democratic nomination for Congress in Kansas’ Third District, Sharice Davids joined with 300 protesters outside the Overland Park office of then-Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder to object to the separation of families at the southern border.

That office now belongs to Congresswoman Davids, and on Thursday about two dozen protesters returned to demand that she renounce her recent vote in favor of a $4.6 billion border security bill and commit to shutting down immigrant detention centers.

One of the protesters, 58-year-old Mary Benrud Gachie of Overland Park, sat on a couch in Davids’ office and refused to leave until the Democratic congresswoman committed to “closing the concentration camps.”

“I will not leave until Rep. Davids makes a commitment to show compassion and courage, or I’m removed by force,” Gachie said as she sat in the office surrounded by congressional staff and Overland Park Police.

Shortly before 4 p.m., however, Gachie and other protesters ended the roughly five-hour action, saying they were convinced that Davids was not interested in adequately responding to their demands.

In a statement, Davids spokeswoman Johanna Warshaw said:

“Representative Davids has long opposed this Administration’s needlessly cruel treatment of families at the border, including separating children and families and keeping them in mass detention centers with little access to basic necessities.”

“Representative Davids respects the rights of all constituents to peacefully protest and make their voices heard. She is listening and always appreciates hearing from her constituents.”

The protest, organized by the local chapter of the Never Again Action and KS/MO Dream Alliance, comes after Davids was embroiled in a fight between Democratic leadership and a group of young progressive lawmakers.

New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff criticized Davids by name on Twitter after she and other moderate Democrats joined Republicans in passing the border security bill, which lacked the accountability measures that House Democrats had initially sought.

Davids voted for the bill that had humanitarian standards demanded by progressives in her party, but when that failed in the Senate, she and other moderate Democrats voted for the GOP-backed bill that didn’t include the standards.

Davids defended her vote by saying the children and families seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border “deserve our immediate attention and humanitarian aid. I voted… to pass legislation that, while not perfect, will provide immediate assistance to those seeking asylum and help relieve the horrific conditions at the border.”

“I would have liked to see stronger protections from the House bill included in this version, like increased oversight of the standards by which migrant children are detained, but ultimately getting aid to the children and families at the border must be our priority right now,” Davids said at the time of the vote.

Bob Hoffman, who helped organize Thursday’s protest on behalf of Never Again Action, said the only humanitarian crisis at the border “is how we are treating children and families once they enter the U.S. seeking asylum.”

Davids and other Democrats passed a bill this week to establish humanitarian standards for hygiene and nutrition for detainees in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It’s one of several bills House Democrats are moving forward with to establish new standards for detention centers after the funding bill omitted these provisions.

“The horrific conditions at the border do not reflect the values we hold as Kansans or as Americans. We must continue to address this crisis, keep children safe, and ensure accountability. This legislation will set medical care and humanitarian standards for detained individuals, including families and children, in a matter than respects the basic rights of those seeking asylum and is consistent with our country’s values,” Davids said in a statement Thursday.

The passage of these measures comes after a series of social media skirmishes between the party’s progressive wing and Democratic leadership in the wake of the border security vote.

The party united last week after President Donald Trump hurled racist attacks at four progressive congresswomen. But the underlying divide between progressive Democrats and the party’s moderate wing, which Davids exemplifies, continues to persist both in Washington and in the district.

Republicans are targeting Davids’ seat in 2020 and are rooting for the division in the Democratic base to continue into next year

Hoffman said people call him absurd when he refers to refugee detention centers as concentration camps.

“The difference between a concentration camp and a death camp isn’t found in a dictionary,” he said. “It’s found in a calendar. Concentration camp becomes a death camp when people do not intervene. I’m here to intervene, and to ask Rep. Davids and Democrats in Congress to intervene.”

Gachie noted that she stood with Davids last summer outside the Overland Park office to protest the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.).

“That’s part of what is so heartbreaking,” Gachie said. “It’s a betrayal of those of us who supported her.”

Davids, who at the time of the ICE protest was running in a six-way Democratic primary to challenge Yoder, is visible in The Star’s photographs of the rally. The Star’s report, which does not mention Davids, states that some protesters voiced support for abolishing ICE.

Shortly after the primary, Davids faced her first major controversy when Yoder’s campaign attacked her for a podcast interview in which the first-time candidate voiced support for defunding the agency, which enforces immigration law, and criticized her GOP opponent who at the time chaired the budget subcommittee that handles ICE’s funding.

“One of the reasons that Kevin Yoder is so problematic is that he’s the chairperson of the Homeland Security committee in the House and he has done the opposite of what we’re talking about here. He has the power to defund these practices and defund ICE and he instead decided to write a letter,” Davids said in the 2018 episode of the Millennial Politics Podcast.

Davids’ campaign walked back the comments and asserted her opposition to ICE’s abolition, but she continued to face attacks from Republicans on the issue throughout the general election campaign.

During a phone call with The Star while refusing to leave Davids’ office, Gachie said she still believes Davids will ultimately do the right thing.

“I’m here,” she said, “to support her to have the courage to really make a difference. I believe she will have a change of heart.”

This story was updated.

Lowry reported from Washington, D.C.

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Jason Hancock is The Star’s lead political reporter, providing coverage of government and politics on both sides of the state line. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he has written about politics for more than a decade for news organizations across the Midwest.
Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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