While most candidates were consumed with end-of-quarter fundraising in September, U.S. Senate candidate Kimberly Graham volunteered her time to help a young asylum seeker prepare for his immigration hearing.
Graham, a children’s rights attorney from Indianola, spent five days in Brownsville, Texas, working with migrants to craft applications for asylum.
She observed first-hand the hundreds of people stuck in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico, as they await their opportunity to apply for asylum in the U.S.
“We’re effectively banning asylum,” said Graham, a Democrat working to unseat Republican Sen. Joni Ernst in 2020. “It’s damn near impossible to get it right now.”
As part of her trip, she helped serve food to men, women and children camped out at the border waiting to cross the bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville.
“It’s one thing to intellectually read about what’s happening, and then it’s something else entirely to see what’s happening with your own eyes and to sit in a detention cell with somebody for hours and hours and hours listening to their story,” Graham said, in an interview with Starting Line.
The story she heard at the Port Isabel Detention Center was that of a “very young” man seeking asylum alone. His mother, Graham said, already was legally living in the United States, but instead of staying with her until his immigration hearing, the man had been held at the detention center since June. He was afraid for his life after refusing a cartel’s demand to sell drugs.
Graham said she spent seven hours with the man over the course of three days, working with him in exacting detail so he was confident in his asylum claim when he went before a judge.
“It’s worse than most of us know,” Graham said, relaying the experiences of volunteers she met in Brownsville. “Even for those of us who sort of keep up, or try to keep up on what’s going on.”
Immigration reform is one of 15 policy proposals Graham has outlined on her campaign website.
If elected to the Senate, Graham said she would work to rid the country of private detention centers, advocate citizenship for DACA and Temporary Protected Status [TPS] recipients, and argue only “flight risks and violent offenders” should be detained.
Branding herself as the “Best Senator Money Can’t Buy,” Graham sees herself as the “progressive candidate” in a four-way race for the Democratic nomination.
“The response has been shockingly great,” Graham said. “I say shockingly because I didn’t know what to expect. I think the response has been so good because we’re getting out there. We’re talking to as many people as we possibly can. I really wish I could clone myself and speak to every single voter for an hour, but obviously I can’t do that. I’ve just been trying to get out there as much as I can.”
In an effort to meet voters in all parts of the state, not just Democratic strongholds, Graham said she has “accepted virtually every invitation” offered to meet her would-be constituents. She already has visited about 40 counties in the state, with the intention of hitting all 99 more than once.
“I believe it’s incumbent on us to reach out to literally everyone and not only to go visit areas with a lot of Democrats,” she said. “I know that’s not the way you win Iowa.”
Though she is far behind the rest of the field in fundraising — she raised only $8,712 in the second quarter — Graham’s focus on a “truly grassroots campaign” means instead of sitting on the phone with potential donors, she is in voters’ living rooms, town halls and coffee shops.
“I don’t think it’s going to work to just go to the Democratic strongholds between now and June to win the primary and then show up in all the counties June through November and say, ‘Oh, we’re here now,” Graham said. “I think that people, correctly, see through that nonsense. Either you cared about them the whole time you were running or you didn’t. I just really believe that you’ve got to show up in person.”
She has participated in candidate forums, chatted with social media followers, and on Tuesday, she went to Ernst’s office building in Des Moines to read the Trump whistleblower complaint aloud.
Building A Trust
With the primary election still seven months away, there is no polling yet on this race.
However, a February 2019 Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll showed Ernst with a 57% approval rating among Iowa voters. But in a purple state like Iowa, Democrats consider this seat a top pickup opportunity and a must-win if they intend to retake the Republican-controlled Senate.
Compared to a career spent representing abused children and indigent adults, running for Senate was not a daunting task for Graham. In fact, her work taught her “how to walk and chew gum at the same time and how to work really hard.”
“The reason I’m running is because, basically, for 20 years I’ve seen the end results of the ways we’ve failed to invest in our people in this country,” Graham said. “I’ve seen the results of the lack of health care — the lack especially of mental health care — the lack of a universal childcare program, so that when people go to work they don’t go broke trying to pay for childcare. Basically, they can’t ever get ahead.”
Graham doesn’t have a big network of donors or backing from well-known Democratic leaders in the state, but she’s committed to spreading her message and hearing directly from Iowans as she works to become the state’s second woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
“You engender that trust and you earn that trust by showing up and talking to people, and more importantly, listening to people,” she said. “I can only say that I’m going to work harder than anybody else, I know that. We’ll see what happens.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
Photo by Julie Fleming