The next time you hear Republicans claim to be transparent on the issue of immigration, believe it. We can see right through them.
These days, what really defines the Republican Party’s approach to immigration—and particularly those Republican governors who might aspire to one day to sit in the Oval Office—is its glaring hypocrisy.
The GOP is full of tough talkers when it comes to keeping out foreigners. Insisting that they’re the only ones who care about border security or national sovereignty, Republicans accuse President Biden of single-handedly causing the current crisis by creating an “open border.” If they ever again get control of the White House, they vow to finish former President Trump’s “border wall”—which, despite all the hype, only covers about one-third of the nearly 2,000 mile long U.S.-Mexico border. They would also reinstate the former president’s “remain in Mexico” policy for asylum hopefuls awaiting the decisions of immigration courts.
In other words, if they regain the presidency, Republicans plan to do pretty much what the current Democratic president is already doing or planning to do—much to the disappointment of progressives in his own party who feel betrayed by what they see as Biden’s right-wing lurch on the border.
In politics, tough talk is often empty talk. Much of the immigration debate is made up of situational ethics, where members of both parties say one thing when they control the White House and the opposite thing when they don’t.
Take, for instance, executive orders issued by the president. How do the parties feel about that practice? It depends on which party controls the presidency.
To get a look at unbridled hypocrisy, the eyes of the nation should be upon Texas. There, Gov. Greg Abbott has—in the last seven years—gone from championing state sovereignty when Barack Obama was president to submitting to federal authority when Donald Trump was in the White House to leading the resistance to Biden’s immigration policies today.
It’s hard to imagine now but Abbott actually campaigned as an inclusive moderate when he first ran for governor in 2014, after serving 13 years as state attorney general. At a time when others in the Republican Party were flaunting their nativism, Abbott’s campaign for governor was not shy about advertising the fact that his wife, Cecilia, was the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants.
But, in recent years, Abbott has morphed into an immigration hardliner. Since he leads a border state, Abbott must think that he is perfectly situated to make the claim that the Southwest is being invaded and that he is the only brave soul who can fend off the invasion.
Among his immigration antics: Abbott has requested that fellow GOP governors send their state’s National Guard troops to the Lone Star State to secure the U.S.-Mexico border; several governors did just that. He has also been pushing for a state-funded border wall, and he has succeeded—thus far—in securing a $25 million down payment to build two whole miles worth. And then there was the time the governor dispatched state troopers down to the border to help the border patrol fend off Haitian refugees looking for a better life.
What is Abbott’s angle? In the increasingly complicated purple state of Texas, it could be as simple as survival. He underestimated the ferocity of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he showed poor leadership during last winter’s energy outage where some Texans had to burn their furniture just to stay warm.
Now, facing re-election in 2022, Abbott will likely be challenged on his right flank by fellow Republicans like former state GOP chairman Allen West and then, if he survives the primary, on his left by Democrats like Beto O’Rourke (and that’s not to mention Matthew McConaughey, who says that he’s “seriously considering” a run, though he won’t say which party he identifies with).
The one saving grace for Abbott is cold, hard cash. He has lots of it. In July, he had already amassed a colossal $55 million war chest. You can bet some of that came from folks around the country who see the Texas governor just as he wants to be seen: as the front line of defense against a surge of illegal immigration.
And, if Abbott can win re-election next year, don’t be surprised if he starts floating his name as a possible candidate for the GOP nomination for president in 2024. If that happens, immigration will be his ticket to the show.
Of course, that’s a crowded show also including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who does not lead a border state but you would never know that by how aggressively the Floridian is trying to steal the immigration issue away from Abbott.
DeSantis has all but declared war on the Biden administration over immigration. He recently directed Florida agencies to stop assisting federal authorities in relocating migrants, called on state law enforcement officials to “audit” large private companies to ensure their workers are legally permitted to work in the United States, and encouraged Florida authorities to detain buses, planes or cars that are “reasonably believed” by authorities to be transporting someone who entered the country illegally via the southern border.
Meanwhile, the state of Florida has filed a lawsuit against Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and other top Biden immigration officials. The plaintiff contends federal authorities are making a mockery of immigration laws and that Florida is directly harmed by the policy of “catch and release,” where detained migrants are released and told to appear at immigration proceedings at a later date.
“If you look at what’s happening at the Southern border, it is a total disaster,” DeSantis has said. “This is absolutely a crisis… We are the ones who are affected by this and we have to fight back.”
And I bet you thought the official line of the GOP was that the federal government was the ultimate shot-caller on immigration policy, and that any governor who wants to dictate the terms of who should be admitted to the United States really ought to run for president. That is, after all, what Republican governors at the state level—and all the way up to the White House—repeatedly argued from 2017 to 2021, during the Trump administration.
Remember how Republicans got a case of the vapors something terrible just a few years back when an uppity deep-blue state tried to interfere with federal immigration policy? Or so they said. In 2017, California passed, and then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed, Senate Bill 54. The so-called “sanctuary state” law was intended to discourage local and state law enforcement from trying to be pressured or hoodwinked into doing the jobs of federal immigration agents.
In 2020, the Trump administration challenged the California law. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted that California was unconstitutionally interfering with federal immigration enforcement. But the Supreme Court—relying on a prior decision from years earlier, written by no less a conservative stalwart than the late Justice Antonin Scalia, that said state and local officials are not obliged to aid and abet federal law enforcement—refused to hear the challenge.
All this will make your head spin, and leave you wondering whether the political parties have any firm principles left.
For the politicians of today—including Abbot and other Republican governors angling for a promotion—winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. Yesterday is a distant memory. And everything is negotiable.