Shortly before the Tree of Life shooting, Bowers posted on Gab, a social media platform popular with white nationalists, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I'm going in."
The memories of the shooting that killed 11 people in Squirrel Hill are still fresh in many people’s minds, especially the Jewish groups targeted and those involved in the mourning. And two of those groups are taking issue with recent immigration-related statements made by local U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Peters).
Before the June 4 vote on House Resolution 6, a bill to provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers and other select undocumented immigrants, Reschenthaler spoke on the floor of the House.
“This week as the humanitarian crises at our southern border escalate, house democrats want to make this situation even worse,” said Reschenthaler. “And yet my colleagues across the aisle want to ignore this humanitarian crisis. And want to pass a bill to increase and reward illegal entries. And incentive further illegal immigration. H.R. 6 provides amnesty to millions of people. Placing the interest of those that broke our laws above the interest of those who followed our laws, including loopholes that make gang members and other criminals eligible for green cards.”
HIAS president and CEO Mark Hetfield says he is disappointed in Reschenthaler for choosing to “promote fear over facts when it comes to immigration.”
As the humanitarian crisis at our southern border escalates, House Democrats want to pass a bill to make the situation worse and provide amnesty to millions of people. They need to work with us to fix our broken immigration system and address this crisis. pic.twitter.com/bb5XQe9UYP— Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (@GReschenthaler) June 4, 2019
“After everything that Pittsburgh has been through, with immigrant ‘invaders’ used as the pretext for the anti-Semitic massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, this city should not have to put up with such rhetoric,” says Hetfield. “This vilification of immigrants and asylum seekers is dangerous but is not unique to Rep. Reschenthaler.”
Heftield also says that Reschenthaler is wrong to claim that gang members and criminals are eligible for green cards under H.R. 6.
The federal government doesn’t classify gang affiliation as a crime, since that generally can infringe on First Amendment protection on rights to peacefully assemble. But the federal government does have “criminal street gang” enhancement laws that add years onto sentences for criminal offenses of gang members, adding a maximum of 10-year imprisonments to most gang-related crimes. And according to H.R. 6, any qualifying immigrant will lose their chance at gaining citizenship if they have been convicted of “any offense under Federal or State law that is punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of more than one year.”
Reschenthaler's claimed the bill would incentive "further illegal immigration," but H.R. 6 would only apply to immigrants who have been continuously in the U.S. four years before the act is signed into law.
A request to Reschenthaler’s office for comment was not answered.
Another pro-immigrant group involved in the Tree of Life mourning and marches was also critical of Reschenthaler’s statements. IfNotNow Pittsburgh said in a statement that as Jews, the group remembers how many Jewish people immigrated to the U.S. as refugees, and how the U.S. wasn’t always welcoming to their arrival. IfNotNow said it is important how the U.S. frames the arrival of immigrants.
“The problem is his fear mongering, disdain for immigrants, and the resulting cruel policies of detention and exclusion,” said IfNotNow in a statement, referencing Reschenthaler’s comments. “This disdain is at the root of violence against our communities in policy, and in [the shooting] at Tree of Life. As Jews, we call on all Americans to stand in solidarity with immigrants, refugees, and all those who suffer violence from white nationalism.”
Reschenthaler also appeared to inflate how many immigrants are attempting to cross the southern border and exaggerated how big the migration flow has been historically.
He said an average of 4,500 individuals are apprehended each day trying to illegally cross our southern border. The latest U.S. Customs and Border Patrol figures show an average of 4,286 migrants were apprehended at illegal points of entry in that May 2019. When looking at the last eight months, that average is 2,442 a day.
Reschenthaler also claimed that “daily border crossings at our southern border have hit record highs in a decade.” According to The New York Times, apprehension of illegal border crossings were less than half a million in 2018. In 2009 and 2010, apprehensions were above half a million. In the late 1990s, apprehensions were regularly above 1.5 million a year.
H.R. 6 passed the U.S. House by a vote of 237-187, with votes from mostly Democrats, including U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Swissvale) and Conor Lamb (D-Mount Lebanon). Seven Republicans also backed H.R. 6, including Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Bucks). Reschenthaler voted no.