Republican Candidates Outbid Each Other on a Border Crackdown

4 minute read

In the opening seconds of the GOP debate, candidate Tim Scott, a senator from South Carolina, took a question about President Joe Biden visiting striking US autoworkers in Michigan and quickly pivoted to what he really wanted to talk about: the border. “Joe Biden should not be on the picket line, he should be on the southern border working to close our southern border because it is unsafe, wide open and insecure,” Scott said.

For the next twenty minutes, Republican candidates repeatedly worked to outdo each other with ever tougher lines on border security. “Every county in America is now a border county,” Scott proclaimed, saying Biden should finish Donald Trump’s border wall. Vivek Ramaswamy said he would “militarize” the U.S. border with Mexico. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis repeated his proposal to deploy American special forces into Mexico to attack cartels. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said he would send the U.S. National Guard to the border on “Day One” of his presidency to stop fentanyl from being smuggled into the US. Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina, called for stopping federal funds to so-called “sanctuary cities” that aid newly-arrived migrants, and she blamed Biden for sending the wrong signals when he came to office. "When Joe Biden waved the green flag, it caused more people to come,” Haley said.

To be sure, there is a massive increase in cross-border migration unfolding in the American southwest. Apprehensions at the southern border went up 30% in July and August, after declining slightly in May and June, and record numbers of migrant families were encountered by US border agents in August.  

The Biden Administration recently extended temporary protective status to Venezuelans who were in the U.S. before August 1, 2023, that will allow up to 400,000 Venezuelan migrants to apply for temporary permits. That decision was made under pressure from mayors of cities like New York and Chicago, who have seen an influx of immigrants put a strain on city services and want recent migrants to be able to work and afford to pay for their own housing.

Whatever the solution, however, escalating rhetoric by politicians isn’t it, says Gregory Chen, senior director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The constant drumbeat of right wing talking points that the border is open may actually be encouraging more people to try to make the dangerous journey through Mexico to get to the southern border "The striking effect of that is that it sends a message that smugglers capitalize on," Chen says.

Biden administration officials say that they’ve sent 800 new active duty military personnel to the border to assist in handling the influx of migrants. They argue that Republicans in Congress have failed to fund the resources Biden has requested to manage the border. “President Biden recently called for $4 billion in his supplemental funding request to address the immediate needs of DHS to safely and humanely manage the Southwest border. But House Republicans aren’t acting on it,” said a White House official. House Republicans have proposed a spending plan that would eliminate 800 Customs and Border Protection agents and officers, the official said.

“If MAGA Republicans actually cared about securing our border, they would not stand with House Republicans' proposed devastating cuts to border security that would eliminate hundreds of CBP staff and would surge thousands of pounds of drugs into the country,” says Kevin Munoz, a spokesperson for President Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign. “The 2024 MAGA GOP hopefuls are campaigning on the same failed policies and political stunts that threw America’s immigration system into chaos, cruelty, and confusion under Donald Trump’s watch.”

Chris Christie was called out during the debate on Wednesday night for supporting in 2010 a pathway to citizenship for people in the country unlawfully. He’s backtracked since then. “Our laws are being broken every day at the Southern Border and Joe Biden is doing nothing about it,” Christie said. Christie did leave an opening for letting new arrivals find a place in the US workforce. “We want you here in this country to fill the 6 million vacant jobs we have,” Christie said, but “Only if you follow the law and only if you come here legally.”

Christie and his fellow candidates didn’t mention that most of the legal pathways have been underfunded and clamped down by Congress, and that fixing the situation would require reforming the immigration system itself. That is a project that has confounded Republicans and Democrats alike for decades now, and is one none of the Republican candidates on stage Wednesday night chose to address.

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