The 50th Congressional District in California has been the dynasty of the Hunter family for nearly four decades. Beginning in 1981 with the election of Duncan L Hunter (Sr) and carrying on until the recent resignation of Duncan D Hunter (Jr) in 2020, the Hunter family has controlled the district for 38 years. Now, with the resignation, the seat is up for grabs by a group of 10 candidates. Leading the pack is Ammar Campa-Najjar (D), a resident of east county, who, in the last election, came closest to ending the Hunter dynasty.
Campa-Najjar is leading the district race based on his ability to excite and motivate the voters. Focusing on issues important to voters – healthcare, employment, climate change – grabs their attention, but speaking on issues like campaign finance reform (getting big money out of politics) and overturning Citizens United (corporations aren’t people) is what excites many of the people to whom he speaks, on both sides of the aisle.
I recently sat down with Campa-Najjar at his campaign office in Escondido. We discussed a number of topics in the hour and fifteen minutes we spent together. His answers to my questions were honest and straightforward. After having run for this position for three years, a few of the answers felt rote and had been honed over time, but the sincerity with which he answered the questions was not.
Our conversation turned toward border security and building/re-enforcing the wall. Some of questioned his comments printed in his Union Tribune interview as being anti-immigrant and demonizing to those people who choose to cross the border in search of better living conditions.
Border Security and Immigration – Separate Issues
“I believe in data-driven, evidence-based solutions that are grounded in good governance. These issues require a comprehensive approach and I have a comprehensive approach to address border security and immigration reform,” began Campa-Najjar. “It’s important to note that border security is not the same as immigration policy, but if we get immigration reform right it will make our country safer.
“For example,” continues Campa-Najjar, “my opponent Darrell Issa introduced a bill in 2013 that I would’ve supported at the time, at least some version of it. The bill would have given 12 million undocumented immigrants status for 6 years as a starting point. Issa is now trying to distance himself from his own record because Carl DeMaio is referring to it as ‘amnesty’. The irony is Ronald Reagan was the first President in recent memory to push for so-called ‘amnesty’.
“I don’t believe that border security and immigration policy are the same thing,” he continues. “Today, if you listen to Issa and DeMaio, all you will hear them say is ‘we need to build the wall, the wall, the wall’ as if that will solve everything related to immigration and border security.
They aren’t the same thing at all. Even seeking asylum isn’t related to border security. People who walk up to the border, raise their hands, and seek asylum legally – whether they are admitted or denied – is a separate issue.
“When it comes to strengthening our border, protecting our ports of entry, that is not meant to demonize one group over another, in my estimation. For God’s sake, I’m Latino-Arab American so I’m not being prejudiced against any groups. Every country has the right to have its own borders.”
Campa-Najjar’s vision for border security extends beyond the southern border with Mexico. He believes the northern border is just as vulnerable – if not more so – than the southern border. “I think whatever we do to secure the southern border we should do to secure the northern border. Because there have been things which have come into the country through Canada.”
I ask Campa-Najjar to explain his idea of what border security looks like. If, as he says, his opponents speak solely about “building the wall” as the solution, what then does an enhanced border look like with him in office.
“When it comes to border security, I talk about infrastructure, I talk about personnel, and I talk about technology. I don’t believe in a wall from sea to shining sea. We already have a wall in San Diego. If there are places we need to renovate the existing wall, we could do that, but I don’t believe building a wall will solve the problem. I believe in good governance and data-driven solutions. We need to do a mile-by-mile assessment of the border and have a needs assessment of the border.
“That’s my approach. And that is very different from the approach my opponents take; the pandering of Issa and DeMaio to the right. And my approach is the approach the whole San Diego congressional delegation agrees on; and that consensus among the delegation will bring us more resources to take care of the security issue along with other issues which exist along the border, like the sewage issues along the Tijuana River Valley.”
Picking up on his theme of a mile by mile assessment of the border, I asked if that meant we were going to pick up the theme of building a complete wall from San Diego to the Rio Grande. Part of the Trump idea is to complete the full wall along the southern border, even though there are environmental impacts, cases where the wall would be built some distance north of the existing border and separating US citizens from their land, and situations where the terrain and natural environment would be prohibitive for building a wall.
“This is why we need to do the mile-by-mile assessment of the border. There are some areas where we have natural borders; no one is going to get through there, whether there are mountains or something else. That coupled with the environmental concerns and the legitimate concern about eminent domain, I don’t believe the federal government should infringe on private property to erect a wall.”
This idea of renovating the existing wall and leaving openings in inhospitable terrain has concerned immigrant rights activists throughout the southern United States. Because of the “funneling” of immigrants into these areas there has been an increase in deaths and injuries, an increase in the number of cases of abductions and extortion on the Mexico side of the wall, and an increase in the costs incurred by US agencies to patrol these areas. I ask him about these concerns and whether a more secure border wall would add to these problems.
“Infrastructure is only one part of my plan, and at the end of the day, fixing our broken immigration system is critically important. The second part of my plan – personnel – is part of addressing this issue. For example, we need to have more immigration judges available to process asylum and immigration cases for those who come to the border. If we improve our immigration system and make the process humane, which would cut down on the deaths and migration in dangerous places, we can save lives.
“There needs to be a less draconian narrative when it comes to immigrants and we need to understand there are constitutional rights afforded to people who seek asylum which are being ignored currently by this administration and feeding the narrative of the right who want to demonize the people instead of fix the problem.”
Moving away from border security to immigration policy, I ask Campa-Najjar about overcoming the fear-based terms like “illegal alien” versus “undocumented immigrant” and how we overcome that built in bias.
“First, I believe we should give the Dreamers (children of undocumented immigrants who have grown up in the United States) a path to citizenship. We should deal with these 11 million people realistically and humanely. We should encourage everyone to come out of the shadows; those who have not committed felonies and serious crimes, which the majority have not, should be offered a pathway to earn citizenship or status, because they can be part of our solution toward security, they can be our eyes and ears.
“It is most often undocumented immigrants who are the victims of unreported crimes. We need to create a system where people are able to come out from the shadows and be a part of society. We have to say it’s not only Americans who we are protecting , but it’s everyone we’re protecting who contributes to this country – whether you are American or an aspiring American – from those who mean harm to it.
“We have people who are citizens of this country who are domestic terrorists and there are those who come to this country and have ill will towards us. For example, according to a 2015 report from the CATO institute, the incarceration rates for documented and undocumented immigrants is far below those of native-born Americans. With the undocumented rate at 0.85 % and the native-born Americans at 1.53%.That’s why I say we need to secure our borders and protect the American Dream but that again is not the same thing as an immigration policy which I see as a part of helping keep our borders secure.”
I asked at this point how we change the narrative and overcome the language which reinforces the idea of immigrants being “illegal” and which stokes fear in people. How do we change the perception of the immigration issue so that there isn’t such a quick position taken based on bias and age-old prejudices?
“You’re asking the right question, because the reality is, I’m from Jamul and there isn’t a lot of sympathy for immigrants there, except for those who work in every single store and business they go to. When I go to the Jamul Liquor Store, I’m talking with people who are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants; when I go to the warehouse shop for tools, there are immigrants working there; I can’t think of one establishment I go to where there aren’t immigrants or the descendants of immigrants working there.
“It is important to take off your ‘political lens’ for a moment and realize there are a number of immigrants who own businesses and contribute to our economy every day. These people deserve citizenship. There are many immigrants who serve in our Armed Forces, I think they deserve citizenship more than I do. I’m a citizen because my parents had me here in the United States; these people bravely served our country.
“We need to remember the value of immigrants. Without immigrants, who would feed our families and support our local farmers? Crops would wither on the vine without immigrants, that happened in Georgia when they passed draconian policies. People have earned the right to be citizens. There are workers all over the United States who contribute to our society every day and they are Americans in every way except on paper. Our immigration system has failed us and those who need it because politicians have used it for their own political cause. The failed immigration system is great political currency but it is bad for our country.”
I take the opportunity to share a story of a gentlemen I met through the border wall on one of my trips to Friendship Park, the border area in San Ysidro. He had been brought to the United States when he was two and, when he was stopped for a traffic violation in his late 20s, he was deported because he was not a citizen, even though he thought he was because living in the US was all he had known.
“We are poorer as a country, not just morally but economically, for that. People who are working and paying into the system – contributing with their talents and time – should not be the priority for deportations. Those who are here, who have not committed felonies, should be welcomed and given the opportunity to come out from the shadows and be Americans.
“The same for those immigrants who have served in the military and continue to live in the shadows, I consider that time served. I believe military service should guarantee citizenship. Those who have come to this country and then served this country, because they love this country, should be citizens; they have earned their citizenship. And those who have had troubles once they are discharged because of PTS or other service-related troubles, should not be sent to other countries. Those who have been discharged honorably should not be deported dishonorably.”
Nearing our hour together, I wanted to cover other topics. First, I asked Campa-Najjar about his stance on cannabis and decriminalizing it.
“I believe the reason cannabis is illegal is because of the influence of the big pharmaceutical companies,” Campa-Najjar explains. “We need to stop the revolving door between the pharmaceutical companies and the FDA. Often times the FDA does ask the financial assistance of pharma for research and development and that’s a problem, in fact 75% of the funds the FDA uses to research and approve opioid medications comes from the pharmaceutical companies that stand to profit the most. We need to cut the umbilical cord between pharma and the FDA.
“We know that veterans, seniors, and many others will be helped when we decriminalize cannabis. I studied neurodegenerative diseases growing up, my grandfather on my mother’s side died from Alzheimer’s, and I think we know intuitively that cannabis will help people with the effects of many diseases. It has been shown that cannabis will help rejuvenate synapses in patients with brain-related injuries. We need for this to be available.
“But, like immigration, we need to overcome the prejudicial ideas behind the policies. For years, anti-cannabis laws have been used as a means to incarcerate young men of color. This needs to stop. While the use rate is equally distributed among all populations, the incarceration rate among persons of color is significantly higher for victimless crimes.”
Next, I turned to the topic which is consuming most news stories these days: The Impeachment and trial of President Trump. I asked Campa-Najjar if, knowing what he knew now, would he have voted to impeach the President.
“I hold Senator Mitch McConnell to a high standard,” he explains. “We are all upset he is prejudging the outcome of the trial and refusing to look at all the evidence which is available to him to review. I believe any congress person who prejudices the outcome of the very somber and important responsibility of holding the Executive Branch accountable does an injustice to the process.
“Without having access to all the documents and evidence (both public records and the confidential information) and without being able to ask the questions I would want to ask, I would consider that the type of prejudging that I am criticizing Mitch McConnell of and I want to hold myself to the same high standard.
“I’m confident after reviewing all the public evidence, the classified evidence only seen by current members, and being able to question witnesses myself, I would do the right thing when it comes to this important decision and be able to look voters in the eye with my verdict, but I want to hold myself to the same standard I’m holding Senator McConnell and not prejudge the outcome before reviewing all the facts available to members.”
At the end of our time together, the final question I asked Campa-Najjar is what is left to say and what he would like to say to those who are reading this article.
“There are 13 days (at the time of the interview) until the ballots drop in people’s mailboxes. I am confident in my position in the race and in my ability to win this race,” he says. “It is interesting, the last day for the district to avoid a special election was January 13 and it is no coincidence that Hunter decided to resign on that day. I would have won the special election with at least 50% plus one, and the Republicans knew that.
“I will win in the primary and I am confident I will win in November. When I do, the district will have a representative from the district and who will be able to actually vote in this race and for those issue which affect the district. I will work hard to represent my bosses, the voters of the district. I ask that you take a chance on me; in two years, we’ll check in and see if you still want me to represent you.
“I may represent your values but not your views and that’s ok. You don’t find 100% agreement in campaigns, you find that in cults. I’ve been working for three years now, for a two-year term. I haven’t given up; I’m the only candidate from the last election still involved now. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is.”
The Race to November
In a poll done by SurveyUSA released on January 13 by the San Diego Union Tribune, Campa-Najjar leads the district race with 26% of the vote. In November of 2018, Campa-Najjar narrowly lost to Hunter Jr. While there is no possibility of an outright victory in this race in March – top two vote getters go to the General Election in November – it is almost guaranteed he will advance through the primary. To win the election, he will need to continue to draw voters from all parties, including independents, something which his philosophy is helping him to do.
Alianza North County is proud to endorse Ammar Campa-Najjar for the 50th Congressional District and we look forward to watching him champion the causes of the district in Washington, D.C.