TUCSON, Ariz. — In the Grand Canyon State, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., calls herself a “child of the border region.”
Seated at a table with local officials in the Pima County Historic Courthouse on Tuesday, the Democrat-turned-independent took copious notes as she leveled criticism at the Biden administration in her hometown days after the lifting of Title 42 — the pandemic-era policy that kept migrants out of the U.S.
“You mentioned some great accomplishments that I’m really proud to have achieved for Arizonans, but there is still a lot left on the table to be done,” Sinema told NBC News of her political future. “And right now, immigration is my No. 1 concern.”
Sinema introduced legislation that would give the White House the authority to extend Title 42 for two years without a public health emergency order in place. The legislation currently does not have enough support to pass in both chambers of Congress, but it is part of a larger immigration reform effort that Sinema and Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina are spearheading.
“I’m inviting colleagues both from the House and the Senate to come visit the border, to see that every portion of the border is different and unique,” she explained. “And that the solutions that we come up with must be both bipartisan, bicameral, and most important, practical.”
Leading her third bipartisan trip to the U.S.-Mexico border this year, Sinema — standing alongside Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. — scoffed when asked about the possibility of tackling the immigration crisis from outside of Congress, despite sharply criticizing Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in the past.
“Oh, gosh, no, I don’t want that job,” she said. “Serving in the United States Senate, you have the ability to actually change the laws of our country … I’m really happy to be in the legislative part.”
The freshman senator has been elusive about her ambitions after her term concludes in 2024, with no timeline for a decision to run for re-election.
“We need members of Congress who are willing to actually change these [immigration] laws,” she said. “The administration can’t do that. That’s our job.”
Launching his campaign for Sinema’s seat earlier this year, Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego also has made immigration a central focus. Like her, Gallego has criticized the Biden administration for not doing enough to address the problems border communities are facing.
Gallego said his state was “simply unequipped to handle the surge of migrants” without federal intervention when the three-year-old Title 42 restrictions expired this month.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which traditionally backs incumbents, has yet to decide whether it will support Sinema, no longer a member of the party, against the Democratic nominee. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who helms the Senate Democrats’ political arm, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have said they are unlikely to make a decision before Sinema declares her intentions.
After spending the afternoon hearing from officials at Casa Alitas, a nonprofit immigrant aid program run by Catholic Community Services, Sinema also weighed in on the current debt limit standoff between Republicans and Democrats back in Washington, D.C.
“I do feel confident that the two parties will come to an agreement. I’ve been encouraging them to find compromise,” Sinema said, adding that she spoke that day with negotiators. “I’m in close contact with folks on both sides of this negotiation because the urgency of this situation requires that we’re all willing to put skin in the game and solve the problem.”
And when it comes to who she’ll support for president in 2024, Sinema said she’s not concerned about political party affiliation.
“I think what Americans are looking for is someone who speaks to their values and is more interest in solutions than the partisan talking points. … I think people are hungry for someone who comes forward with practical common-sense solutions,” she said. “That’s what I’m looking for.”
Sinema praised her colleague, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who officially launched his presidential campaign on Monday — but joked that endorsing him “would not be helpful.”
Lankford, who had only glowing comments about Scott, agreed. He said he received questions over the weekend regarding Scott’s character. “People would ask me, ‘Is he really that nice?’ And I said, ‘Oh yes.’”
“What I will say is Tim Scott is a wonderful person, a man of great honor and integrity,” Sinema added.