Speaker Mike Johnson took no fewer than 60 of his House GOP colleagues on a trip to the southern border this week, enacting a ritual that is both familiar and pointless. The playbook is rife with cliches: Don outdoor-rated clothing (tactical pockets are a bonus); nod gravely while speaking to Border Patrol agents; gaze determinedly into Mexico; and hold a press conference to repeat words such as “crisis” and “open borders” dozens of times. That’s what you call leadership.
Republicans treat these jaunts to the border as accomplishments in themselves, far more meaningful than any legislative response. The same holds true for their main immigration “solution” in Washington: moving to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Not because Mayorkas has committed any malfeasance but because … well … they haven’t quite been able to say why they want to impeach him, other than the fact that it’s a good excuse to shout about the border some more.
Given this toxic stew of silliness and bad faith with which Republicans approach a complicated policy issue that they claim to care about above all others, you’d think the White House and congressional Democrats would be roasting them mercilessly. They’d be telling the public that only one party is serious about immigration, and it isn’t the one that shouts the loudest about it.
If only that were true. Instead, the White House and Democrats seem helpless as Republicans insist on blocking President Joe Biden’s request for more Ukraine funding — or even funding for the government as a whole — unless it is joined to radical immigration policy changes that they know Democrats won’t tolerate. The result may be no more help for Ukraine, and it certainly won’t be anything to address the problems at the border. Which is just fine with Republicans.
Consider the incentives at work for your average Republican lawmaker (a term I use loosely). Since most of them come from districts of a deep shade of crimson, their only electoral worry comes from a far-right primary challenge. Ranting about the dangers of migrants is therefore vital — showing how mad they are and blaming Biden for the recent increase in border crossings. They’ll never be punished for not solving a problem, particularly if the solution involves compromise, which among Republicans is tantamount to treason. “Let me tell you, I’m not willing to do too damn much right now to help a Democrat and to help Joe Biden’s approval rating,” Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, recently told CNN. “I will not help the Democrats try to improve this man’s dismal approval ratings.”
Republicans’ disinterest in a legislative fix reflects the leader of their party. Donald Trump’s nakedly fascist assertion that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” doesn’t allow for nuanced policy solutions. Those members of Congress know that “whatever they do on immigration, Trump is going to blast as insufficiently anti-immigrant,” says Douglas Rivlin, communications director for immigration advocacy group America’s Voice. “They’re just too worried about the Fox News narrative.”
Other Republican presidential candidates are competing to see who can most closely imitate Trump. So what appeal could a legislative compromise actually hold? Even if senators from both parties come to an agreement — which is far from a sure thing — it’s almost guaranteed to die in the House where hard-liners hold sway.
Democrats have a reasonable set of proposals to deal with the recent increase in border crossings: more Border Patrol agents for enforcement, more immigration judges for adjudicating claims, more money for ports of entry, and more funding for cities facing influxes.
But the Biden administration is too frightened to really confront Republicans on this issue. Democrats still approach the issue from a defensive crouch, always worried that someone will call them “soft” on immigration. And nothing looks weaker than that.
What they should do instead is attack, to put Republicans on the defensive for a change. Trumpet Democrats’ proposed reforms — some of which Republicans claim to support. Remind people that for decades, Democrats have supported immigration reform, but every time it was the Republicans who bailed out. Browbeat reporters for not asking GOP leaders why they insert poison pills in every attempt at reform. Make sure voters know that the GOP is a bunch of cowards who won’t stand up to Trump and his white supremacist dreams. When Republicans bring up impeaching Mayorkas, don’t promise to cooperate. Denounce the impeachment of a Cabinet official for a policy disagreement as the stunt it plainly is.
And when Republicans stage a farce like Johnson’s border trip, mock them without mercy. Don’t say “We too are concerned about the border.” Say: “If these Republicans cared about fixing the immigration problem, they’d be sitting down at the table to negotiate, not prancing around the desert in the outfits they sent their aides to Bass Pro Shops to pick up on their way to the airport.”
Any responsible lawmaker who sees the border as a “crisis” should be willing to do whatever it takes to confront it, including compromise. The fact that Republicans aren’t shows that they see it not as a crisis, but as a political football. That’s what it will remain, unless Democrats make them pay a price.
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