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WASHINGTON — For the record, 11-year-old Josie Molina says the decision to ask U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais how her undocumented father could stay in the United States was hers and no one else’s.
“I felt like I had something to say, so I did,” she said.
But the young girl’s videotaped exchange with DesJarlais, who responded that immigration laws need to be followed, left her feeling “mad and sad,” opened up the congressman to charges of insensitivity and caused his office to issue a statement elaborating on his position.
“I felt like I owed Ms. Molina an honest answer to her question,” DesJarlais, a Jasper Republican, said in the statement released Tuesday.
Josie said she’s still not satisfied with DesJarlais’ response and that he hasn’t heard the last from her.
“I’m going to talk to DesJarlais,” she said. “I’m going to ask him the same question.”
The exchange between the congressman and the 11-year-old from Nashville happened last week at a town hall meeting in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and centered on Josie’s father, Milton Molina, an immigrant from El Salvador who is facing deportation.
In a blurry, at times shaky videotape of the conversation, Josie, an American citizen, tells DesJarlais during the question-and-answer session, “I have papers, but I have a dad who’s undocumented.”
“What can I do so he can stay with me?” she asks.
DesJarlais thanks the young girl for having the courage to stand up in front of “a big, intimidating crowd.”
“But,” he adds, “the answer still kind of remains the same: that we have laws, and we need to follow those laws, and that’s where we’re at.”
Some people in the audience cheered the congressman’s response.
The 49-second videotape of Josie’s question and DesJarlais’ response has been distributed widely on the Internet. Critics called the congressman’s reply tactless and suggested he should have tried to reassure the young girl.
DesJarlais, who has spoken in favor of securing the nation’s borders, sought to explain himself in his written statement.
“We are a nation of laws, and breaking those laws has consequences,” he said. “While this country has always had a generous immigration policy, we simply cannot condone individuals coming here illegally. As a member of Congress, I strongly believe I have a responsibility to be truthful, even if that means delivering difficult news.”
Josie’s mother, Megan Macaraeg, said DesJarlais’ reply remains insufficient. “That’s not an acceptable answer,” Macaraeg said. “We need a better answer.”
Macaraeg, organizing director for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said Josie accompanied her and other community members to the town hall meeting, but was not scheduled to speak. But after hearing other people address the congressman, Josie was inspired by what she heard and decided she had something to say, Macaraeg said.
“I was apprehensive, as a mother,” Macaraeg said. “I asked her, I said, ‘Josie, are you sure you want to speak up? You could get a lot of attention for this.’ And she said, ‘Yes, I want to.’”
Josie said she was surprised by DesJarlais’ answer to her question. “He should have said, ‘I’m going to stop families from being separated,’” she said.
He didn’t. But Josie said she’s not done with him yet.
“Now, I’m going to go back to him for a different answer,” she said.
Contact Michael Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-2711.