Society / March 1, 2024

Border Hysteria Is a Bipartisan Delusion

Yesterday, both President Biden and Donald Trump visited Texas to promise harsher immigration policies.

Chris Lehmann
Donald Trump points to Texas Governor Greg Abbott as he speaks at Shelby Park during a visit to the US-Mexico border, Thursday, February 29, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Tex. (Eric Gay / AP Photo)

It’s early days still, but the 2024 presidential contest has reached a grim nadir ahead of Super Tuesday: President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump each spent Thursday staging demagogic photo ops on Texas’s southern US border. Biden was in Brownsville, and Trump was in Eagle Pass—the site of a hard-right nativist convoy mustered earlier this month in support of Governor Greg Abbott’s barbed-wire insurrection—but both candidates were occupying the same symbolic authoritarian ground. Biden stumped in Brownsville for a bipartisan Senate bill instituting harsh security crackdowns on immigration and tightening restrictions on asylum applications. Security personnel at the border “desperately need more resources,” Biden said at his Brownsville stop, declaring that it’s “long past time to act” to beef up enforcement at the border. “We can’t wait any longer.” He also disingenuously invited Trump to drop his opposition to the Senate legislation and “join me” in the bipartisan push to more fiercely blockade and police immigrants seeking entry into the country.

Trump was, well, Trump—cueing up one unhinged, hate-filled talking point after another. He spoke of the recent killing of the young nursing student Laken Miley in Athens, Ga., in which Venezuelan immigrant Jose Ibarra has been charged, as but the latest example of lawless and marauding foreigners menacing the safety and pillaging the birthrights of Real White America. (Stalwart students of Trumpian scaremongering on the issue might recall the fatal shooting of Kate Steinle from the blood-and-soil rhetoric of campaign 2016; after Trump had seized on that case as an exemplar of a mayhem-enabling immigration system, the actual investigation found that Steinle was shot inadvertently while the undocumented defendant was foolishly playing with a loaded gun he found.) He then supplied this panaromic vision of immigrant predation and social decay, cribbed from his standard rally speeches: “These are the people that are coming into our country, and they’re coming from jails and they’re coming from prisons and they’re coming from mental institution and they’re coming from insane asylums and they’re terrorists. They’re being led into our country. And it’s horrible.”

Our mainstream political press doesn’t consider it sporting to disrupt such heavy-breathing campaign theatrics with dry recitations of fact, but, nevertheless, here goes: There is no immigrant crime wave—let alone a hostile armed “invasion,” as racist thugs such as Abbott and Trump routinely proclaim—for the simple reason that immigrants commit crimes, and violent crimes in particular, at far lower rates than the native-born US population. That trend has held remarkably steady over the 150-year run of the modern immigration regime, and yet the bullshit claim that immigrants are purveyors of Clockwork Orange–style ultraviolence remains catnip to unprincipled bigots. It’s also true that drawing arbitrary lines among such enormous and diverse swaths of the population—not to mention assigning antisocial or dangerous behaviors to them—is pointless at best, and all too often flagrantly racist. “There are more diabetic people than there are immigrants,” says Boston area immigration attorney Matt Cameron. “But you don’t hear all this alarm about diabetic homicides for some reason.”

The other central theme that’s propelled the MAGA cottage industry in immigrant-bashing is the claim that immigrants are economic as well as social predators: They claim jobs that should be earmarked for Americans who are either native-born or legally naturalized, and tend to drive down wages throughout the economy. Yet here, too, the refrain of mass resentment is wholly fabricated: As a team of Washington Post reporters recently documented, surges in immigration over the past five years have been central to the overall hale state of the economy, and particularly to its unparalleled turnaround from the Covid slump of 2020. Analysts with the Economic Policy Institute found that foreign-born workers account for around 50 percent of the labor market’s explosive growth, while the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that immigrant labor effectively closed the post-Covid gap in the job market by the middle of 2022. Immigration “has just been absolutely astronomical,” Pia Orrenius, vice president and senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas told the Post. “And that’s been instrumental. You can’t grow like this with just the native workforce. It’s not possible.” Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office reports that immigration is a principal driver of job growth, projecting an additional 5.3 million workers joining the workforce by 2033. The influx of foreign-born workers will account for a whopping $7 trillion in growth over the next decade, the CBO estimates.

It’s more than a little dumbfounding, then, that our campaign-media nexus has produced the pathetic spectacle of the two leading contenders for the presidency trading gibes over which candidate can crack down harder on a “crisis” that’s put the United States far ahead of all other Covid-hampered developed economies. It is, to put things mildly, unheard of in the annals of history for invading forces to adopt the tactic of lavishing $7 trillion in treasure on their target populations.

It’s particularly dismaying to see Biden, who’s keen to claim credit for the generally robust state of the economy, stooping to a “same here” position before Trump’s own fascistic lies about immigration. As he urged Congress to ratify the Senate bill in January, Biden said, “If that bill were law, I’d shut the border down right now.” His recent interest in an executive order cracking down on asylum claims follows the same dismal and opportunistic line of thought: targeting a vulnerable, unrepresentative population for the sake of appearing to toughen up border security. In reality, as Jason Houser, a former Biden official with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, recently explained, asylum crackdowns do precisely nothing to diminish the volume of immigrants crossing the border, and indeed will serve only to further increase it. The prospect of such an order also follows the same expansion of executive authority that Trump used during his presidency to institute a host of similarly draconian—and similarly ineffectual—border security measures. Should Biden lose in November, Trump would thus have a Biden-sanctioned precedent close to hand as he sets about creating the nativist police state, replete with detention camps and rolling deportation squads, that he’s already plotting out for his second term. 

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Biden’s border posture, in other words, comes straight out of the old faux-savvy Democratic campaign playbook of triangulation: staking out an apparent difference-trimming position on an issue that traditionally plays to the right’s advantage. That was the guiding logic of the disastrous 1994 crime bill Biden cosponsored in the Senate, and has produced similar gruesome liberal capitulations on a host of other policy fronts, from income support for the poor to the privatization of public schools to the deregulation of the financial sector. That ugly policy record, and the electoral reversals flowing from it, should give Democratic strategists pause in co-opting yet another content-free GOP culture-war crusade in an appeal to a vanishing undecided and independent presidential electorate. “As usual, Democrats are meeting Republicans on their turf, and conceding that there’s a ‘border crisis,’ which is a mistake,” Cameron says. “Democrats don’t need to allow Republicans to keep dictating the terms of debate.”

That’s an especially urgent mandate given how extreme and unhinged GOP rhetoric and policy proposals on the issue have become, Cameron adds. “In Arizona, they’re going to change the law to guarantee that you can shoot anyone on the grounds of a ranch and a farm and basically kill them. That’s where all this invasion rhetoric leads, along with all this rhetoric you hear now from the right about a wave of ‘military age men’” crossing the border, he says. “I am very concerned about the fascist backlash that’s going to come no matter who’s elected president.”

Yet these connections never crop up in our purblind, horse-race-driven discourse around immigration and presidential politics. Instead, we get elite-choreographed blather about the candidates’ “dueling border visits” and the “optics” driving them. Small wonder that, despite the absence of any actual, measurable crisis to spur the authoritarian consensus on border security, polling now shows that immigration ranks as the number-one concern for the electorate for the first time in five years—with Trump’s overtly fascist positions drawing far wider support than Biden’s spineless copycat ones, or than Trump’s 2016 immigration agenda did, for that matter. It’s become as common for gatekeeping pundits to bewail a “broken” immigration system’s dysfunctions as it is for the Donald Trumps and Greg Abbotts of the world to deliver paranoid rants about immigrant “invasions” and crime sprees. Yet what’s clearly broken is the cruel, content-averse discourse we’ve allowed to govern the immigration question. Unless and until Democrats summon the nerve to challenge it head-on, spectacles like the ones on the Texas border Thursday will only accelerate the country’s fascist decline.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the DC Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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