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Borderline insane: Political theater overwhelms real solutions to immigration crisis

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Borderline insane: Political theater overwhelms real solutions to immigration crisis

Feb 19, 2024 | 8:30 am ET
By Sonny Albarado
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Borderline insane: Political theater overwhelms real solutions to immigration crisis
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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (center) announces plans to create an 80-acre base for National Guard troops at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Feb. 16, 2024. Texas Border Czar Mike Banks stands at Abbott's left and Adjutant General Gen. Thomas Suelzer at his right. Abbott has used guardsmen from Texas and other states to try to stem the tide of migrants crossing the Rio Grande into the United States, putting him at odds with the federal government and the U.S. Supreme Court. (Screenshot from Texas

Our nation’s immigration system is a doddering mess, especially at the southwestern border. Many say it’s broken. So why isn’t our government doing something about it?

I think we know why, but let me run down some of what’s happened recently to bring some perspective. 

After months of negotiations, a trio of U.S. senators (Republican, Democrat and independent) produced a bill on Feb. 5 that would have been the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration law in close to 40 years. Think about that: there’s been no substantive change in national immigration law since the days of former President Ronald Reagan.

But less than 24 hours after the senators released the bill’s details, the possibility of action evaporated as Republicans in the Senate treated it like toxic waste amid the pressures of a divisive 2024 election year. Some Democrats and advocates for migrants also criticized it for undermining the asylum system.

Of course the deal didn’t even get a real vote. The Senate couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed to simply move the $118.3-billion package forward. The deal would have provided money for more border enforcement and more immigration judges, and given the president authority to close the southwestern border when certain triggers were met. The bill also included billions for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and humanitarian aid for Gaza.

So, Congress blew a real opportunity to improve the system even as the number of arrests for illegal border crossings reached historic levels and Texas played rogue immigration enforcer.

There’s always disagreement between the major political parties on how best to overhaul the U.S. immigration system, but the bill that was torpedoed on Feb. 7 seemed like a good place to start working toward a compromise.

Instead we got the hypocritical spectacle of Republicans demanding that a foreign aid bill also address border “security” but rejecting it when they get one.

“It turns out border security is not actually a risk to our national security, it’s just a talking point for the election,” Arizona independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said when the foreign aid-and-border package deflated.

What better example of that than Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s political theater at Eagle Pass, Texas, in the past two weeks?

Stopping illegal immigration is easy, according to Abbott: Just close the border and the flow of migrants crossing into the U.S. will quickly slow to a trickle.

Abbott said he believes the solution is as simple as stringing razor wire and shipping containers along the Rio Grande, and stationing National Guard troops and Texas state police at the border. He boasts that guardsmen and state troopers created 160 miles of barriers (concertina wire, containers, river buoys and fencing). Texas has 1,200 miles of the 2,000-mile-long border. 

He crows that in the past six months, crossings at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, have fallen from thousands a day to less than 10 a day. Migrants are choosing to enter the country through other states because of the resistance Texas has put up, Abbott said.

“If Arizona and California would do what Texas has done, we could eliminate illegal immigration,” he said at a Feb. 4 press conference with more than a dozen other Republican governors.

“This is not just a Texas fight,” Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the same media opportunity at Shelby Park with military vehicles and soldiers as a backdrop.

Abbott, Sanders, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte all claimed the solution to the problem of a so-called “invasion” lies with President Joe Biden.

“It is time something was done,” said Lee, who is also chair of the Republican Governors Association. “If [Biden] doesn’t do it, we will.”

Lee and the other governors expressed admiration for Abbott’s leadership in establishing Texas’ own shadow immigration enforcement program, Operation Lone Star, in 2021. The initiative has resulted in legal clashes with the federal government, which courts have ruled has sole authority over immigration enforcement. Most recently, Texas officials defied a U.S. Supreme Court order that they allow Border Patrol agents into Shelby Park to apprehend migrants crossing the river and render medical aid.

Most of the governors with Abbott this month pledged to send or continue to send guardsmen from their own states to help Texas “defend its borders.” Arkansas sent 80 troops for a month last July at a cost of $1.2 million.

On Friday, Feb.16, Abbott announced he will build an 80-acre base at Eagle Pass to house up to 2,300 troops as he continues to play up his tough stance.

But none of this is that simple, and these governors know it. Biden is constrained by existing law, especially the parts that require the government to consider migrants’ requests for asylum rather than just tossing them back into Mexico.

Shutting down the border would also disrupt international trade and tourism, Axios reported.

Finally, let’s not forget the millions of people living in our country with no clear path to citizenship, many of whom are unfairly viewed as criminals rather than refugees and asylum-seekers in search of a better life.

Possible solutions require admitting that the nature of migration across the southwestern border has changed over time, from primarily single adult Mexicans in search of work to thousands of families and unaccompanied minors trying to escape persecution, poverty, gangs and violence, according to the Pew Research Center.

A recent report from the Migration Policy Institute emphasizes that the real border challenge is “one of control rather than border security, and the principal lever for control is appropriate migration management.”

Managing migration requires thoughtful, good-faith efforts to arrive at solutions instead of borderline insanity.