GOP officials ramp up campaign centered on border fear-mongering—10-08-21
Immigration news, in context
This is the ninety-eighth edition of BORDER/LINES, a weekly newsletter by Felipe De La Hoz and Gaby Del Valle designed to get you up to speed on the big developments in immigration policy. Reach out with feedback, suggestions, tips, and ideas at BorderLines.News@protonmail.ch.
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This week’s edition:
In The Big Picture, we examine the public spectacles mounted by GOP officials fanning the border crisis flames.
In Under the Radar, we look at a federal ruling holding that entry bans don’t mean applicants shouldn’t have their visas processed.
In Next Destination, we discuss the uncertain status of Afghan refugees now leaving the military bases where they first landed.
The Big Picture
The news: GOP officials have been hitting the Biden administration with absurd claims of “open borders” policies for as long as he has been president. This naked political strategy that ignores the fact that Biden’s border approach has essentially been to keep the bulk of the Trump-era framework and tell people not to come. Smelling blood over the perception of chaos stemming from the arrival (and often, immediate expulsion) of thousands of Haitian asylum seekers at the border and the internecine fight over multi-trillion dollar spending measures among Congressional Democrats, GOP leaders in the last week have intensified the false rhetoric and invasion make-believe.
In an absurd spectacle, ten Republican governors descended on Mission, Texas on Wednesday to call for the Biden administration to functionally do what it was already doing: close the border to migrants. They accused it of driving profits to drug cartels and putting the U.S. public at risk. (Ironically, if anything has enriched drug cartels, it’s the closure of the border.) While COVID and its attendant economic consequences continue to ravage the country, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynold, Idaho Gov. Brad Little, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon gathered at a podium in the middle of a field, flanked by humvees, helicopters, and armed National Guard units in full fatigues.
The governors unveiled a ten-point plan they were going to urge the Biden administration to fulfill. The plan included everything from comically unrealistic proposals like completing Trump’s border wall to things the administration is already doing, like attempting to clear the massive immigration court backlog and continuing the probably illegal Title 42 policy. The most farcical of the points was an entreaty to send a “clear message” to migrants that they shouldn’t attempt a trek and entry into the United States. The governors seem to have ignored that senior members of the administration, from the president to the vice president to the Homeland Security secretary, have already very explicitly told potential asylum seekers to stay away.
The governors’ military cosplay served in part to highlight one of the fundamental contradictions in their arguments: they consistently play up the supposed dangers lurking around every bend in Mexico, while simultaneously calling for vulnerable migrants to be sent back or kept out altogether. Texas Rep. Chip Roy perfectly encapsulated this oxymoron when, in an interview with the Daily Caller, he stated both that the Biden administration both wants “migrants to be abused by cartels” and “Americans to have fentanyl pouring into their communities,” without seeming to realize or care that this conception of events requires migrants to concurrently be victims and perpetrators.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey somewhat bizarrely tied rising homicide rates in Tucson not even to migrants themselves, but to law enforcement personnel being otherwise occupied with show patrols around the border, as if that were in any way a requirement of their jobs. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst directly echoed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign launch on Wednesday when she said “of course we’re going to have rapists” among the migrants being let into the country to engage in the legally guaranteed process of submitting an asylum claim. That particular press conference was one of two this week in which Congressional Republicans chided Biden for creating supposed twin national security and humanitarian issues despite having ultimately changed precious little about the Trump era’s approach.
This is ultimately just another form of what observers sometimes sardonically call “Schrödinger’s immigrant.” In its original form, the term pokes fun at the notion that immigrants can at once be taking all of the jobs and lazily sitting around cashing welfare checks. In this case, it’s the view that the Biden administration is at once enticing defenseless migrants to make the trek to the border and put themselves at the mercy of the smugglers and the elements with an open borders message—which, we cannot emphasize enough, is a ridiculous assertion—and also that these people are hardened criminals waiting in the wings to traffic drugs and attack white women.
Ultimately, political theater has only as much power as the impact it has on voters and subsequent political action, and that’s exactly the intent here. These officials know that, above all, the Biden White House hates the perception of acting in a partisan fashion and has already tailored its border approach towards a futile effort to appease right-wing critics. It is hard to imagine how these press circuses and rhetoric would differ at all no matter what the administration chose to do, and it’s made all the more grotesque by the fact that the policies as they stand are among the most restrictive in U.S. history.
Expulsions of Haitian asylum seekers have only increased. There are now a series of interlocking programs that block access to the formal asylum system, just as there were under Trump. These bad-faith campaigns to draw a distorted picture of the border are expected to bear fruit in part because these GOP campaigners are counting on the fact that the public in general will feel very strongly about but have very little real knowledge on the goings-on at the border. This is almost always an accurate assumption, across the political spectrum, from the right wing to the left wing, and is abetted by an out-of-its-depth national media that seems incapable of getting basic facts right in general interest reporting (the immigration beat reporters, by contrast, are some of the country’s hardest-working and most meticulously knowledgeable about their area of coverage).
Case in point, USA Today White House reporter Rebecca Morin published a report on Tuesday based on a conversation that Homeland Security Secretary Ali Mayorkas had with the newspaper’s editorial board and newsroom journalists. In it, she included the declaration that “thousands of migrants appeared before an immigration judge to see if they would be allowed to stay in the U.S.” in reference to the Haitian would-be asylum seekers who had camped out near the border. This is a claim that it is entirely, unquestionably, and demonstrably false, as was immediately pointed out by multiple immigration advocates, lawyers, and other reporters on Twitter. Yet, three days later and as of the time of this edition’s publishing, the line remains in the story.
How we got here
Back in July, the governors of Arizona, South Dakota, Iowa, and Arkansas deployed their respective National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border. The governors of Florida, Ohio, and Nebraska sent their state highway patrol troopers. Texas had begun arresting migrants for trespassing on private property as part of Governor Greg Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star” a few months earlier, and a coalition of Republican governors wanted to help. The governors, all opponents of the Biden administration, wanted to crack down on the supposed “crisis” at the border.
Abbott and his fellow Republicans claimed the Biden administration had “opened” the border to migrants, causing an unprecedented influx: migrant apprehensions at the border are at a 21-year high. But that doesn’t mean that more migrants are crossing the border now than at any time in recent history. Because of Title 42, the border expulsions policy implemented by Trump at the beginning of the pandemic, the border has turned into a sort of revolving door for migrants. The high number of encounters isn’t due to a sudden, never-before-seen influx of migrants; it’s because the same migrants are being apprehended over and over again.
People expelled to Mexico under Title 42 aren’t formally deported, which means they don’t face the penalties that come with deportation, such as a possible bar on reentering the country for several years. Expulsions create a perverse incentive for migrants: if you get turned away, you can try again, maybe through a more remote—and thereby more dangerous—route, or maybe with the help of a smuggler. Under Title 42, migrants can’t ask for asylum at ports of entry. If they cross between ports, the aim is no longer to be found by Border Patrol as soon as possible, as it was before the implementation of Title 42.
The border is by no means “open,” but a casual observer would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. (Politicians, obviously, are not “casual observers.” Abbott and his ilk are fanning the flames of disinformation, creating a false narrative of an open border when no such thing exists.) The situation varies depending on where you are: at some ports of entry, Customs and Border Protection was allowing a trickle of pre-approved migrants to enter every day. (These limited entries were the result of a partnership between the Biden administration, the ACLU, and local service providers who identified the most vulnerable migrants in Mexico. The service providers would pass the migrants’ names along to the ACLU, which would then pass them along to the administration. The partnership ended on July 31 after the administration decided to extend Title 42 instead of ending the policy, as it had previously claimed it would do.) Unaccompanied minors aren’t expelled to Mexico, but families with children often are—though in some ports of entry, some families with children are allowed to enter the country to ask for asylum as well.
Whether or not a migrant is allowed to enter depends on where they’re apprehended, their age, and often their nationality. Migrants from countries that Mexico is more “willing” to take, such as Guatemala and El Salvador, are more likely to be expelled. In August, 34 percent of migrants encountered in the Rio Grande Valley were expelled, according to CBP data. The majority were from Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and El Salvador, in that order; just 508 of those expelled in the Rio Grande Valley that month were from other countries. In nearby Del Rio—the Border Patrol sector where officers mounted on horseback ran down Haitian migrants—58 percent of migrants apprehended in August were expelled under Title 42.
The fact of the matter is that some migrants are being expelled while others are allowed to enter the country to make asylum claims. There seems to be little logic to the situation. The Biden administration has inflamed an already volatile situation by applying inconsistent policies across the border, and by largely leaving the decision over whether to expel migrants to individual Border Patrol officers. Because of the selective enforcement of Title 42, people who want to see an “open” border despite the obvious continuation of the policy will see that, even if tens of thousands of migrants are expelled each month.
Abbott and his coalition are cynically exploiting this confusion to make it seem as if Biden has opened the border. (The Biden administration, meanwhile, has taken it upon itself to “crack down” on migrants to dispel the notion that the border is open, which it isn’t.) Abbott’s argument is that if Biden won’t enforce immigration law, then state and local governments must. But here’s the thing: even if Title 42 were to end today, migrants wouldn’t just get to come to the U.S. Asylum seekers would be allowed to apply for asylum, but there’s little guarantee that most would get it. Even at its most welcoming, the immigration system is designed to weed people out, not to welcome them.
On top of all that, state and local governments don’t have the power to enforce federal immigration law. (There are some partnerships between federal immigration agencies and local law enforcement, but that’s a separate matter entirely.) Under Operation Lone Star, Texas isn’t arresting migrants for violating immigration laws; it’s arresting them for trespassing. This is possible in Texas because much of the land that immediately borders Mexico is private ranch land. In states like Arizona, where most of the land that borders Mexico is public—e.g., national parks, such as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument—local law enforcement can’t arrest migrants for trespassing.
Abbott has only doubled down on Lone Star. In September, Abbott announced the Operation Lone Star Grant Program, a $100 million effort to “enhance interagency border security operations supporting OLS, including the facilitation of directed actions to deter and interdict criminal activity and detain non-citizens arrested for state crimes related to the border crisis.”
There’s no real reason for the GOP to suspend this effort, as it’s already been established that it doesn’t actually have to have any nexus to the truth. Particularly given the existing narrative that next year’s midterm elections are theirs for the taking, the border wedge issue presents a lot of advantages as a messaging strategy. First of all, as we’ve noted, it is among the public policy issues in which there is the largest delta between how strongly people feel about it and what they actually know. This is in part due to its unique position in the firmament of political decision-making as an issue that is massively consequential to the nation’s future but with which native-born U.S. citizens could never directly interact.
There is no other such issue that lends itself to such a massive degree of public ignorance. No matter what, everyone at some point is forced to engage with the education system, or the tax system, or the healthcare system. On immigration, however, unless a U.S.-born person has friends or family that need to navigate its arcane structures, there’s no reason they’d ever have to fill out a form or engage with an immigration agent or bureaucrat. That makes it all an abstraction, a theoretical framework that is constructed differently in each person’s mind and can be molded by a skilled political hand. It’s a ripe issue for tailoring specifically to the necessary political specifications because candidates can say essentially whatever they want about it without facing much pushback from journalists who don’t specialize in immigration.
As the midterms heat up, expect to see more excursions of GOP legislators and governors heading out to ride around in humvees and on gunboats, maybe wearing a flak jacket or two and accompanied by eager Fox News types keen to feed greedily at the trough of simplistic tropes as served up by CBP itself. The agency has every incentive to help out, as it views recurring border chaos stories as an opportunity to increase its funding and standing.
In all likelihood, the GOP messaging will work. The skittish consultants retained by the DNC and erstwhile moderates who populate the Biden campaign and administration will advise the president to turn the screw even further, and hypothetically negate the electoral advantage of the border disorder dialogue by engaging in more overt sadism to discourage further arrivals. These attempts at finding a middle ground won’t work on two fronts They won’t actually discourage any migrants from making the trek, and second, they certainly won’t neutralize the impact of the political argument, which would move forward in almost the exact same way whether Biden personally spit-shined each migrant’s shoes and then handed them a green card or he set up landmines across the border.
Under the Radar
Federal judge again rules that exclusions don’t mean visa prohibitions
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg has ruled that exclusion policies under Immigration and Nationality Act 212(f)—which we have discussed a lot and initially explained in one of our first editions—do not extend to visa processing of petitioners outside the United States. To briefly recap, 212(f) is the authority that the infamous “Muslim Ban” was issued under, a version of which was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court. It permits the president to cast entire categories of noncitizens as inadmissible, based almost solely on their discretion, and was used liberally by Trump.
This lawsuit was brought by a group of applicants for both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas who had been excluded under presidential proclamations restricting entry to those deemed a COVID introduction risk, or who were said to be detrimental to the post-COVID labor market. The ruling doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be permitted to enter, but it establishes that this prohibition on entry does not direct the State Department to simply not process their visas at all. While some of the earlier proclamations have since been rescinded, Biden has issued a few of his own in response to emerging variants in the pandemic.
Afghan refugees in the U.S. may not have path to citizenship
Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who were paroled into the country will soon leave the U.S. military bases where they’ve been living, CBS News’s Camilo Montoya-Galvez reports. But because they were paroled into the country—instead of being issued visas or admitted as refugees—the Afghan evacuees may not have a direct path to obtaining legal permanent residency and, eventually, U.S. citizenship.
At least 40 percent of the more than 55,000 Afghans who were evacuated to the U.S. are eligible for special immigrant visas due to their work with American forces during the war. But those who don’t qualify for special immigrant visas may have to instead apply for asylum, a different process than obtaining refugee status. Congress created an expedited asylum process for Afghan evacuees, under which U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is required to interview them no later than 45 days after their initial asylum application. Decisions for Afghan asylum seekers must be issued within 150 days of their application being filed. But there are so many Afghan migrants that USCIS may not be able to process all the applications within that timeframe.