The MAGA Migrant Delusion
Extremist Republicans are about to sink the very bill they asked for but blame Biden for that somehow.
With border security declared “dead on arrival” in the House, Americans are getting two competing versions of reality.
In the MAGA fantasy world, the Biden Administration still owns the “crisis” at the border. The immigration fix that emerged from Senate negotiators was a complete non-starter, House GOP leadership claims, and would have made the migrant situation worse.
Besides, while Biden says he would shut down the border on day one of the bill’s passage, there are lots of things he could do today to fix the crisis, but he’s just not doing them.
In the real world, of course, none of this is true. It was Republicans who insisted on tying border policy to Ukraine funding and demanded the very bill they are now killing. They hand-picked their negotiators and got nearly all of their wish list, to the horror of progressives who see many of the provisions as a betrayal of our principles. But the MAGA right still couldn’t take yes for an answer, not after Trump made it clear that any border solution would help Biden get re-elected.
Further, Biden is legally prohibited from doing the things the GOP wants. For instance, Speaker Johnson likes to cites Section 212(f) to claim presidents can suspend immigration for anyone “detrimental to the interests” of the U.S. But he leaves out the part where Trump actually tried that, back in 2018, and a federal court struck him down.
And everything else they say Biden should do—increased fentanyl screening, more agents, shorter processing times, more detentions—would take billions of dollars, which MAGA Republicans are now refusing to provide.
In short, there’s a lot of unreality going on with MAGA on immigration. In today’s piece I’ll break down their talking points, discuss the big policy victory on migration they are walking away from, and reserve a few choice words at the end for what this says about the modern GOP.
What can Biden really do on his own, anyway?
In his piece in the New York Times today, Michael D. Shear points out that the reason the proposed Senate bill on the border contains so much express authority for the president is that he otherwise lacks the power to do it today.
“The idea that the president could accomplish most or all of this through executive authority is just flatly wrong,” said Ben Johnson, the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “By every measure, constructive solutions using executive authority alone just don’t exist in this particular moment.”
Indeed, if they had, Trump would have deployed them, right? Well, he tried. Remember the attempted Muslim Travel Ban? Trump sought to use his authority under Section 212(f) of our immigration laws to “suspend” by sheer “proclamation” all immigration to the U.S. from certain Muslim countries. Four federal courts immediately ruled against his broad assertion of presidential power, and a court of appeal upheld them. Trump had to water down his total ban significantly and make it a “U.S. enemies” ban (to include North Koreans and certain Venezuelan officials) to get it to pass muster before the Supreme Court, and even that was a 5-4 decision.
Indeed, the government’s power under Section 212(f), according to the courts, has to be weighed against other immigration laws, importantly including the legal right to consider asylum for those requesting it.
But what about Title 42? Didn’t Trump use it to keep migrants out? Recall that Title 42 was a pandemic era rule, which Trump used to declare a public health emergency during Covid-19. Biden lifted Title 42 after the pandemic was over. There’s no current health crisis that would justify reinstating it.
Okay, but what all the things Biden could do today to streamline the asylum process; increase monitoring of those paroled into the U.S.; and provide more lawyers, judges and staff to help manage cases? The simple answer is, all these things take money. And all of them were covered in the border bill that the Republicans are about to reject.
So what’s in the bill that is so bad?
Republicans claim they want more border security, and this bill is honestly their best chance in four decades to pass comprehensive reform and fund the border security projects they want. In her OpEd in the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell lists some of the wishlist items that the GOP actually asked for and received, and is crazy to walk away from. As she put it, these include:
beefing up border security as a condition for giving any more aid to Ukraine (check!)
a tougher and faster asylum-processing system so that those who don’t meet asylum criteria needn’t stay and work for years while their cases crawl through the courts (check!)
hiring more personnel for Customs and Border Protection as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (1,500 and 1,200, respectively — so, check, check!)
huge investments in fentanyl detection technologies and other anti-trafficking enforcement (check!)
reviving something like Title 42 restrictions, wherein the president can “shut down” most of the asylum system (though this version doesn’t require a public health pretext and has more severe consequences for border-crossers — so, check-plus, perhaps).
The bill is in many ways too much of a concession to Republicans, as least as progressives and civil rights organization see it, because it seeks to reshape how our very asylum laws work. It would do so by, among other things, 1) changing the standard to be applied to seek asylum from a “significant” to a “reasonable” fear of persecution, and 2) eliminating the role of courts in overseeing asylum claims, leaving it up to staff members only.
Still, the House GOP leadership likes to point to its own bill, H.R. 2, as an alternative to the already pretty draconian Senate proposal. But H.R. 2 is an extremist MAGA fantasy that funds the border wall while providing no money for anything that could actually stop border crossings. Plus, it has zero chance of passage in the Senate, while the border bill would pass the House with many Republican votes if Speaker Johnson would allow it to come to a vote.
Meanwhile, MAGA Republicans are busily attacking the bipartisan Senate bill using misinformation. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), for example, claimed that the bill “gives taxpayer funded lawyers to illegal immigrants”—without mentioning that the lawyers are for unaccompanied children.
The bill’s co-author Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) pointed this fact out in response and added, “You know, 8 year old kids fleeing violence or certain death, who arrive at our border alone, shivering and frightened, traumatized from the journey, not able to speak the language. We aren't monsters. We should help them.”
The bill’s other co-author, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), has tried calmly to counter a barrage of misinformation. He had to dispute Speaker Johnson’s claim that he was excluded from the negotiations. In fact, Johnson was invited to be a part of them, but he declined. And he had to push back on claims that the border was somehow secure under the Trump administration, noting on Fox that there were days of “3,000, 4,000, 4,500 crossings” while Trump was president, sending the Fox interviewer into a tizzy.
Watching Lankford struggle on Fox, Chris Hayes of MSNBC remarked, “It's always oddly fascinating to watch a hard core conservative attempt to correct misinformation in the face of Trump propaganda. The thing is: it won't matter! That's precisely the problem the rest of us have been yelling about.”
A Senate leadership aide even had to provide a point-by-point rebuttal to the House Leadership Statement; I’ll provide screenshots of it below. The Statement is in white and the rebuttal in red. That’s the color I assume the Senate aide was seeing by this point, as the impending failure of the most conservative border bill to ever have a chance of passing instead became yet one more clear sign of how badly the GOP is at war with itself.
Some further thoughts
I’ve written earlier about how the GOP is making a strategic error by allowing Biden an opportunity to shift the blame on immigration over to the Republicans. The GOP’s solution to the “crisis” is literally to do nothing, because to do anything would be to help Joe Biden win.
That’s a pretty terrible unforced error. But the way this is going down reveals at least three other things clearly.
The first is that you should not try to meet the GOP more than halfway in its agenda of cruelty. As Julian Castro put it, “Democrats, you’re never going to be cruel enough, ‘tough’ enough, anti-immigrant enough or able to deport your way to the negotiating table with McConnell and MAGA.”
The second is that doing anything the GOP’s way is no solution, because they aren’t interested in solutions. Their bottom line is always going to be what Trump and the most MAGA elements of their party want. And in the end, they want chaos, not governance.
The third is that, as attorney Marc Elias of Democracy Docket put it, “[T]here are no moderates in the GOP—just proud MAGA and scared MAGA. A whole bunch of Senate Republicans are in the scared MAGA camp right now.”
Their fear is emblematic of how their party is run: like a fascist, authoritarian state. Many GOP leaders are parroting what Trump wants, not out of loyalty, but out of fear. As Stuart Stevens of The Lincoln Project observed, “In a totalitarian society, you have to say things you don’t believe because you’re afraid of what the repercussions might be. That’s what’s happening inside the Republican party right now.”
All of these points will be key for the Democrats to shift the public narrative on migration and the blame for the failure over to the GOP. The bill just wasn’t cruel enough for the MAGA House GOP. It offered a real and tough solution, but Trump and the GOP prefer the crisis remain in place for the election. And Republicans are terrified cowards for walking away from a deal they asked for, just because Trump told them to.