WASHINGTON ― For months, Republicans have shouted from the rooftops about a migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border and how President Joe Biden needs to act to address it, insisting the flow of migrants is an urgent national security threat.
Now many on the right are urging their party to reject the very same things they said were needed to fix the problem, including tougher enforcement measures and a proposal to automatically shut down border crossings when it is overwhelmed. Instead, they appear set on impeaching the top Cabinet official in charge of the border, even though there is no evidence of a crime.
The GOP’s contortions aren’t just grating for Democrats but also on some conservative Republicans who have been deeply involved in crafting bipartisan legislation, which is expected to be unveiled soon, that would overhaul how migrants are processed at the border.
“It is interesting. Republicans four months ago... locked arms together and said, ‘We’re not going to give you money for this. We want a change in law,’” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the GOP’s lead negotiator on a deal pairing immigration changes with assistance to Ukraine and other allies, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“A few months later, when we’re finally getting to the end, they’re like, ‘Oh, just kidding. I actually don’t want a change in law because it’s a presidential election year,’” he added.
The deal being negotiated in Congress would reportedly require the U.S. to close the border if about 5,000 migrants cross illegally on any given day. It would also speed up the asylum process, which has long suffered from a lack of resources and an overwhelmed immigration court system.
In a statement last week, Biden called the deal the “toughest and fairest set of reforms to secure the border we’ve ever had in our country” and vowed that if given the authority to shutter the border when it is overwhelmed, he would “use it the day I sign the bill into law.”
A Democratic president endorsing the idea of shutting the border down would have been unthinkable just a few years ago when, under President Donald Trump, Democrats were fighting tooth and nail against the construction of his border wall. Now, with the general election looming and after an unprecedented spike in the number of migrants crossing the border, Democrats realize it is good politics to embrace a bipartisan border fix if it also unlocks GOP support for new U.S. military assistance to defend Ukraine against Russia.
But hopes of linking the two issues to make it easier to pass in Congress are now very much in doubt as Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, urges Republicans to reject the deal in order to deny Biden a policy win. Trump’s allies say he will be able to secure a better agreement if he returns to the White House, even though he had a very poor record at negotiating bipartisan deals when he was president ― notably rejecting an offer to build his beloved wall in exchange for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
Nevertheless, under that scenario, any border changes couldn’t become law until at least a year from now, undercutting what Republicans have been calling an urgent crisis and even an “invasion.”
“The border package doesn’t even come close to securing the border,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said last week, calling it a “stinking pile of crap.”
“We ought to have enough sense not to provide fig leaves for the Democrats and Joe Biden — they caused this crisis,” he added.
But Lankford stressed over the weekend that Republicans should read the bill when it comes out, pushing back against allegations that it would give amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants ― a similar tactic opponents used to derail a bipartisan attempt to reform the nation’s immigration laws in 2013.
“Right now, they’re all functioning off of internet rumors of what’s in the bill, and many of them are false,” Lankford said Sunday on Fox News.
At the same time, House Republicans are moving to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alexander Mayorkas, the person in charge of border enforcement. The impeachment resolution accuses Mayorkas of “willfully and systemically” refusing to enforce immigration laws, such as by failing to detain migrants who are subject to removal from the U.S.
Immigration laws give the government discretion to release certain categories of migrants from detention ahead of removal proceedings, however. A November 2023 study from the libertarian Cato Institute found that migrants arrested at the southern border were more likely to be released under Trump than under Biden. And Biden’s Department of Homeland Security is deporting three times as many border crossers per month as did Trump’s DHS.
Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School who has recently served as Republicans’ expert witness on impeachment, pushed back, saying Republicans lack “a cognizable basis here for impeachment,” describing their differences with Mayorkas as a policy disagreement.
“The Republicans are right: We have an open border. This is a huge crisis,” Turley said Monday on Fox News. “But that is a policy judgment made by the president. The courts have said that presidents can give priority in the enforcement of federal laws.”
Meanwhile, in Texas, the state government has begun to interfere with federal immigration enforcement efforts, prompting the U.S. Supreme Court last week to step in and affirm the right of federal Border Patrol agents to cut razor wire the state installed along a stretch of the border. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has dubiously claimed that the surge of migrants amounts to an “invasion,” thereby giving Texas the power under the Constitution to defend itself as if the federal government did not exist.
House Republicans have backed Abbott enthusiastically while essentially rooting against the Senate negotiation. Even if the Senate is able to pass a bill toughening border enforcement in the coming weeks, House Republicans have signaled that it will be dead on arrival.
Responding to Biden’s statement about the emerging Senate immigration deal over the weekend, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) suggested there’s no need for new laws.
“As I explained to him in a letter late last year and have specifically reiterated to him on multiple occasions since, he can and must take executive action immediately to reverse the catastrophe he has created,” Johnson said.
In a December letter, Johnson recommended several actions Biden could take but also said that statutory reforms “must be enacted,” meaning Congress should initiate the change in law. Last year, House Republicans approved a symbolic bill that would have curtailed the administration’s parole and asylum powers while restarting wall construction on the Mexico border.
The GOP’s claims of a crisis are built around the huge spike in migrants in recent years, driven by many migrants’ belief that Biden would treat them better than Trump did and by a spike in wages for low-income workers in the U.S. The highest number of migrant encounters at the border under Trump was 132,856. In December 2023, the number reached 302,034.
The increase has burdened cities and states, many of them controlled by Democrats, where migrants have traveled in search of work. In New York City, where more than 150,000 asylum seekers have arrived and are legally entitled to shelter, the homeless shelter system is under severe strain. And Mayor Eric Adams has cast blame on Biden and the federal government for failing to act sooner.
Biden’s previous attempts to control the flow of migrants have been mostly ineffective: A much-ballyhooed rollout of an app aiming to speed up consideration of asylum claims showed promise but quickly faded in effectiveness, and a program of ankle monitoring aimed at families crossing the border has also failed to act as a deterrent.
The administration and its allies have consistently pointed to a failure of Congress to fund more asylum judges as a reason for the ongoing strain.
“We need more immigration judges and attorneys to process the claims within a week so you’re not coming here for years waiting on an asylum adjudication,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told HuffPost as he campaigned for Biden in New Hampshire earlier this month. “And we should have a process for having legal immigration of people who want to come here and work and contribute.”
But much of the GOP’s fearmongering has little basis. Republicans have consistently linked illegal border crossings to fentanyl overdose deaths, even though evidence points to U.S. citizens smuggling the vast majority of fentanyl across the border at legal ports of entry.
Immigration has been Trump’s signature issue, dating back to his first presidential campaign news conference on June 16, 2015, at Trump Tower, when he insisted Mexico was sending “rapists” across the border. Though Trump’s presidency saw a backlash against his hard-line views, public polling shows he now holds massive advantages over Biden on who could best handle the issue.
Opposing a deal on border enforcement is risky for Republicans since Democrats will almost certainly pin the blame on them if it collapses. In New York’s Long Island, candidates running in a Feb. 13 special election to replace disgraced former GOP Rep. George Santos are already jousting over the expected border deal.
The politics of immigration are particularly potent on Long Island, where local officials have rejected efforts to absorb some of the asylum seekers that have arrived in New York City. At a rally for Mazi Melesa Pilip, a Nassau County legislator, on Saturday, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) and numerous other GOP lawmakers framed the race as a referendum on chaos at the border.
Tom Suozzi, the Democratic candidate and former congressman, has “done nothing to help the border, and he will do nothing to help the border,” Emmer told HuffPost in a brief interview after the rally.
Suozzi, meanwhile, attacked Emmer and Pilip for refusing to back the emerging bipartisan border deal in the Senate on the grounds that Trump does not want it, and prominent Republican senators, such as Mitt Romney (Utah) and Thom Tillis (N.C.), have urged their party not to succumb to presidential politics in deciding whether to support the deal.
“We’ve got a chance right now, the best chance in 35 years, to make a deal on the border. And they’re saying, ‘No, we want to hold it up for political purposes,’” Suozzi said. “So it’s completely irresponsible, but they’re doing what we’ve suspected all along, which is just politicizing the issue instead of actually trying to solve the issue.”