The Border Is Now Becoming a GOP Crisis
How the GOP is fumbling its best chance at pinning Biden and the Democrats in a corner on immigration
It’s hard to believe, but the GOP is turning its best weapon—the border crisis—into a political liability.
Joe Biden has been seen by voters as weak on the question of the border. Crossings have surged lately, and even Democratic leaders, particularly big city mayors, are pleading for a solution as shelters become overwhelmed with migrants.
It’s a crisis in need of a solution, they have repeatedly claimed. So for months Senate negotiators have sought one, and the parties are very near to a deal. Despite this promising development in the Senate, however, it now seems Republicans over in the House don’t want a solution after all.
That’s because Donald Trump has made it clear he really doesn’t want one. And it could leave the Republicans, including Trump, with egg on their faces when they face the voters in November.
How is the GOP managing to waste its most potent political asset and even create division over the border within its ranks? Didn’t they used to be united, while Democrats were in a quandary, on this same question? What the hell happened?
The crisis and the proposed solution
The border is likely President Biden’s weakest issue. The economy? It’s improving fast, and consumer confidence is rising. Abortion? The Democrats have Republicans on the ropes. Crime? It’s fallen across the country. So that leaves the migrant crisis at the border, and Republicans have doubled down.
But here’s the catch: They have played up the crisis so much—running non-stop coverage of migrant crossings and overfilled shelters, and taking every chance to stage photo ops near the border—that voters have demanded a solution. Indeed, Republicans have been so gung-ho on the border that they insisted on delaying aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan unless the border crisis got fixed.
Okay, said the White House and Democratic Senate leadership. If that’s what you demand, let’s get it done. The draft Senate proposal contains many huge concessions to the Republican demands on the border. But one thing really sticks out: It reportedly would grant the president emergency powers to close the border whenever average daily crossings in any given week exceeds 5,000 people—and we are already there.
That’s why President Biden stated on Friday, in no uncertain terms, that he would shut down the border on the first day he signs the bill into law.
The bill also contains other big provisions, including billions to help break the logjam with asylum applicants, reducing the decision time to six months and raising the legal bar on what qualifies for asylum.
These proposed measures have angered progressives, who see the bill as caving to Republican fear-mongering and racism. But the Biden White House understood one thing: As the migrant crisis started to affect big cities, progressive leaders would also come under intense local pressure to solve the problem. That’s likely why the progressives’ response has felt relatively muted.
By accepting many of the Republicans’ terms, distasteful as they are to many on the left, Biden and the Senate Democrats put Republicans on the back foot. The GOP would either work with the Democrats on a solution, or they would now own the crisis that they refused to help solve.
Wait, work with the Democrats? But that would be… governing! And we know what happens within the GOP when any of their leaders actually attempt to govern.
Handing Biden a political win
Trump is afraid that letting Biden close the border would remove one of his top election messages. After all, since he first came down that escalator in 2015, Trump has been running consistently on an anti-immigrant theme, one that has escalated recently into overt fascist-speak with Nazi language around “poisoning the blood” of America.
Biden closing the border would also blunt one of the best talking points for the Republican Party generally, which has made the border such an issue that members have been taking trips down to it regularly, even if their states are nowhere near it. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has spent billions of state funds to grandstand and waste time and resources with the Texas guard at the border, but that has also failed to bring the numbers of crossings down, despite the erection of dangerous razor wire that has led to deaths by drownings at the Rio Grande.
And others like Gov. Ron DeSantis joined Abbott in illegally transporting migrants as human pawns to places like Martha’s Vineyard and Kamala Harris’s residence in D.C., just to score political points.
But all that posturing and politicizing could end if Biden simply shuts the border down under the new bill. Biden’s threat to do so was met with derision from the right, claiming, incorrectly, that he has the legal power to shut the border down right now.
Trump has claimed that Republicans should not accept anything but a “perfect” border bill, as if one exists, which he would sign into law should he be re-elected. Yet this should ring hollow. Trump and the Republicans controlled both Congress and the White House for two years in the first part of Trump’s term, and no “perfect” bill, or any immigration reform bill of consequence for that matter, ever got passed. They couldn’t get it done then, so there’s no reason to think they could get it done in 2025, even if Trump were returned to the Oval Office and Republicans had full control of Congress.
Still, House Republicans seem to understand the assignment. Although the text of the bill has not been released yet, much to the ire of many Republicans, House Speaker Mike Johnson has thrown cold water on it already. And while his House majority is paper thin, there still might be enough Democrats philosophically opposed to the bill, including its assaults upon decades of asylum law and practice, that its passage remains in doubt.
Senate Republicans break from Trump
A few Republicans in the Senate have been working for months on a bipartisan solution to the border crisis, and they are near to getting one to the finish line. And it appears these senators aren’t interested in playing political games with a genuine crisis.
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who is about as conservative as they come, has been the lead negotiator for the Republicans in the Senate. When pressed on the blowback he has received from pushing the bill forward, he defended its terms and labeled the criticism as false “internet rumors.”
“This bill focuses on getting us to zero illegal crossings a day. There’s no amnesty. It increases the number of Border Patrol agents, increases asylum officers, it increases detention beds so we can quickly detain and then deport individuals,” Lankford said on Fox News Sunday.
Sen. Lankford also noted the awkward position the GOP had put itself in. “So we actually locked arms together and said we’re not going to give you money for this. We want a change in law,” Lankford said, speaking about the border. “When we’re finally going 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 continued, “We all have an oath to the Constitution and we have a commitment to say we’re going to do whatever we can to be able to secure the border.”
That stance earned him precisely what Democrats probably expected: a strong rebuke from his own party. Over the weekend, the Oklahoma GOP state party condemned Lankford for working with Democrats on the border. They leveled many baseless accusations at him, including “jeopardizing the security and liberty of the people of Oklahoma and of these United States,” of “playing fast and loose with Democrats on our border policy,” and of “authorizing several thousand people to invade our borders before any action can be taken.”
That of course mischaracterizes the way the bill would actually work, but it hasn’t stopped the GOP and Trump spin machine from trying to tank the bipartisan border deal with false claims about it. The problem for the GOP is several of its senators don’t seem to have an appetite for keeping the border crisis alive just to score political points. They would actually prefer a real solution.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) was fairly blunt about this when interviewed by a CNN reporter. “I reject the idea that we should reserve a crisis till a better time to solve it.”
And Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), apparently referring to Trump, was clear that the Senate would plow ahead with its bill, irrespective of what the former president wanted. “There are a number of us who won’t be looking to third parties for assessing the propriety of passing these bipartisan proposals…. I don’t see how we have a better story to tell, when we have the one opportunity to fix it.”
This leaves Republicans in the Senate, where Trump’s influence is far less strong, divided from their colleagues in the House for the umpteenth time this congressional session. It turns out, when the GOP came together to “lock arms” and agree there was a border crisis, only some of them actually did want to solve it. And now they are being criticized for it.
The others believe that the crisis remains more politically valuable than the solution. But it’s come to a head: Soon, they may have to walk away from the solution, indicating either that they don’t care how much damage they inflict on the country in pursuit of their political ends, or that the crisis was not such a crisis after all.
Either way, by calling their bluff, Biden could actually wind up taking the politics out of the border, or laying the blame more squarely on Republicans going forward for tanking the very bill they had demanded. It’s almost as if Biden’s decades of experience in Congress now has relative novices there stuck in a border trap of their own making.