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Brooks looks ahead to 2019

BY Emily Rachelle Russell - erussell@chronicle-tribune.com

Congresswoman Susan Brooks (R) of Indiana’s Fifth District has high hopes for the bipartisan potential of the 116th Congress.

The first priority, she said, is getting the government funded and reopened.

A large part of the government has already been funded, Brooks reported, but some agencies have yet to have their budgets approved. This includes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

During the government shutdown, she explained, Democrats are seeking more justification for the proposed DHS budget. The head of DHS is working to provide the necessary information.

Brooks wants to see funding unrestricted not only for a physical barrier but also for technology, such as drones, and workforce along the border.

The congresswoman described the current situation along the southern U.S. border as a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of people crossing illegally in record numbers, including family units and unaccompanied children.

Brooks reported 60,000 people monthly in October, November and December 2018 crossed the border, with 40 percent being family units and unaccompanied children.

She explained that the situation in the countries these people are fleeing are so dire that families are willing to risk their children’s safety to smuggle them across the border in hopes of accessing American healthcare, education, safety and security.

“We have a definite crisis at the border,” Brooks said. “I do agree with President Trump that government’s top priority is the safety of its citizens and ensuring the sovereignty of our nation.”

According to FactCheck.org, estimates of illegal crossings at the southern border peaked in the 2000 fiscal year, with 1.64 million apprehensions, and generally declined by 81.5 percent to the 2017 fiscal year, which saw 303,916 apprehensions.

However, the number of apprehensions, specifically of family units and unaccompanied children, did rise from 2017 to 2018. Reports from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show a 21 percent increase in unaccompanied children and 42 percent increase in family units apprehended from the 2017 to 2018 fiscal years.

This problem is much bigger than the caravan, Brooks said. Besides being illegal, she also pointed out that the journey from countries such as Guatemala and Honduras to the U.S. border is risky and dangerous, especially for children.

“It’s tragic that any child is dying as they’re coming to the border, or as they’re crossing the border,” Brooks said.

Brooks believes the solution to this problem is a bit more complex than a concrete wall. She described a need for steel fences or “barriers on various parts of the border,” pointing out that certain stretches of the border are geographically impossible to wall off, such as mountainous areas.

Barriers would not stop illegal immigration entirely, Brooks said, but they would slow people down. This would give border protection staff — another item she wants to see better funded — more time to respond.

The third part of her vision for border security is technology, like drones, to monitor the barriers and support the work of human personnel. She also cited a need for more immigration judges for processing. According to FactCheck.org, the U.S. has only about 350 immigration judges.

“I don’t think people appreciate the true human crisis at the border,” Brooks said. “It’s horrible what is happening. We have to discourage people from making the trek in the first place, and bringing so many children.”

Beyond the immigration crisis, Brooks said other major focuses for the House in 2019 include passing a biodefense bill, addressing the opioid crisis, improving mental healthcare and supporting school safety and veterans’ issues.

In 2018, Brooks sponsored a biodefense bill titled “Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act of 2018,” which did not get through the Senate. She was excited to see the bill, now sponsored by California Rep. Anna Eshoo (D), pass in the House Tuesday night.

The bill would prepare the country in the case of epidemics, infectious disease outbreaks and natural disasters, Brooks explained. A key component of the bill is support for training natural disaster response personnel and public health professionals.

Another problem both the country and Indiana are facing right now is a lack of mental healthcare services, Brooks said. The greatest need she sees is an increase in the workforce.

“We don’t have enough psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers (or) mental health professionals,” Brooks said. “We’ve got to put a focus on bolstering and improving the workforce. … We often talk about not having enough mental health facilities or beds, but you can’t have those facilities or beds if you don’t have the workforce to staff it.”

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, almost one in five people in the U.S. has a mental health condition. Meanwhile, a 2017 report by the National Council for Behavioral Health predicted the demand for psychiatrists outpacing supply by anywhere from 6,000 to 15,600 professionals by 2025.

A 2018 study conducted by Ball State University across Northeast Indiana found that this shortage impacts rural residents even more than urban patients, with many Hoosiers traveling over 25 miles to get to a specialist or psychiatrist.

Brooks wants to incentivize residency programs to encourage people to go into the mental healthcare workforce.

She also believes there is a need for training for first responders, especially police officers and school and public safety personnel, in addressing and de-escalating situations involving serious mental illnesses.

Also important is better education for the general community on “mental health first aid,” Brooks said, including how to recognize the symptoms of mental illnesses and help those suffering from them.

“A mental illness touches the school safety issues that we deal with,” Brooks said. “It touches the opioid crisis … (and) the justice system. … It’s a common thread in a lot of different public systems that I think we need to put more attention on.”

Brooks also spoke on the opioid crisis.

In September, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded over $1 billion in opioid-specific grants. According to U.S. News, over $25 million came to Indiana.

The congresswoman intends to work with Gov. Eric Holcomb and keep tabs on how that funding is being spent.

With the new year, Brooks also became a minority as Democrats gained control of the House. As a representative who has historically focused on bipartisan efforts, she hopes to continue to partner with Democrats to move legislation forward.

“Luckily for me ... between my team and I, we’ve always worked to be very bipartisan, to work across the aisle,” Brooks said. “That is not going to change.”

Indiana’s Fifth District includes Blackford, Boone, Grant, Hamilton, Howard, Madison, Marion and Tipton counties. For more information on Brooks, her legislation and her voting record, visit susanwbrooks.house.gov.