Given just how unpopular illegal immigration is, it is stunning to see both the likely nominees for president fumbling the issue. That’s political malpractice.
For Biden, the malpractice consists not only in keeping the border open, which is already killing him in the polls, but in resisting the strongest Republican proposals to close it. Every time Republican congressional leaders visit the White House to negotiate, they come away empty handed.
In stiff-arming the Republican proposals, the White House has put itself in the awkward position of saying it will grudgingly accept their efforts but only if Republicans make concessions on other issues. That stance makes the White House looke like it wants to keep the border open and will reluctantly close it if they gain significant concessions on what they really care about, such as aid to Ukraine.
That position is politically untenable. Just read the polls.
Poll after poll puts illegal immigration as the issue voters care most about. Those results mark the first time the economy has not held the top position. The economic recovery is finally beginning to help Democrats and will be a major plus if it continues through the rest of the year. But, for now, “It’s the immigration, stupid.”
The White House has highlighted its losing stance on border control by going to court to prevent Texas from using razor wire to stop the illegal crossings. The administration has a strong legal argument that only the federal government can deal with immigration. But their position is untenable politically because, in the absence of strong enforcement on the border, they are effectively saying, “We want to cut the razor wire and simply let in illegal immigrants.” (Texas’s legal argument is that they have a constitutional right to prevent this “invasion.”)
For Trump and nearly all House Republicans, the malpractice lies not so much in rejecting the Senate deal being negotiated by Oklahoma’s James Lankford, a staunch conservative, but in rejecting it without emphasizing what they really want instead. They need to stress an affirmative counter-position.
Although we do not yet have the details of the Lankford deal, the leaked provisions say it would permit thousands of illegal crossings every day before the administration invokes more stringent measures to prevent them. Yes, it would also hire more border agents, but, in practice, those new agents would be kept busy processing the people who cross illegally, not in keeping them out or deporting them.
It should be easy for Republicans to respond, “We want the stringent members immediately, at zero crossings not at 5,000 or 7,000 a day, and we want a border wall. We will eagerly support a bill that includes those essential measures.” If they manage to convey that message, they would be in a far stronger place politically. Without stressing that positive position, however, Republicans lose some of the political leverage created by illegal immigration and the public’s disgust with the Biden administration’s failure to stop it.
The immigration issue still benefits Republicans, overwhelmingly so, but they weaken their position by looking like political opportunists who “want the issue, not the solution.” The White House, congressional Democrats and the legacy media are already spinning the Republican position that way, in anticipation they will kill any deal and do so with Trump’s backing. The Biden campaign will broadcast that spin until November while the media helps out.
The only effective Republican position is a positive one: “We want a deal, but it must contain these two or three specific provisions to actually work on the border.” They must stress that the issue is not whether it works behind closed doors in Washington, but whether it works in El Paso, Eagle Pass, Denver, Chicago and New York.
An effective Democratic response is, “The Republicans don’t want a deal. They want to inflict suffering on Americans for their own political gain.”
Over the next month, Republicans will have a golden opportunity to advance their position as they impeach Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security who is responsible for border security. The first article of the House impeachment charges him with “willful and systemic refusal to comply with the law” regarding immigration and border security. “In large part because of his unlawful conduct,” those articles say, “millions of aliens have illegally entered the United States on an annual basis with many unlawfully remaining in the United States.” Most Americans agree, and they hold President Biden and his administration responsible.
This impeachment effort puts Democrats in the House and Senate in a painful spot. The longer the Mayorkas proceedings last, the worse for Democrats. To prevent the secretary’s impeachment and removal, Democrats will be forced to defend the administration’s efforts on immigration. That’s a heavy lift. Their only real defense says nothing about those failures for the past three years. It simply says, “we just negotiated a great deal to improve border security but the Republicans cynically rejected it for political reasons.”
The Republicans need a response. If they spurn the Lankford deal, as seems likely, they must say what they want. Concretely and repeatedly. That’s the only way for Trump and Republicans to retain full control of what should be a winning issue.