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Border Battles

Why the Right’s Immigration Demagoguery Crashed and Burned in the Midterms

Democrats thwarted a concerted effort to catastrophize asylum-seekers, but it’s time they discarded the Trump-era ideas that enabled their success.

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas

Votes are still being counted, but one fact is already clear: The Republican Party’s effort to use the exaggerated “border crisis”—naturally with the propagandistic assistance of Fox News and other stars in the right-wing media constellation—as a major vote-getter has failed. Such efforts are, by now, a rote occurrence in the late stages of election season; this is where fearmongering over migrant “caravans” has become a traditional sight. Thankfully, the fear-stoking seems to have been a nonfactor: None of the midterm postmortems are citing immigration as a significant explanation for the results. There is, however, a seamy side to the Democrats’ success in defeating this line of attack.

Moreover, new complications are on the way: Judge Emmet Sullivan, a senior judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, just handed the Biden administration a huge new challenge to its thus-far successful efforts to neutralize the border as a major campaign issue. On Tuesday, Judge Sullivan struck down the use of Title 42, the public health statute that the Trump administration, followed by the Biden White House, (mis)applied to immediately deport more than 2.4 million migrants since 2020. It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will appeal the decision. Hundreds of thousands of migrants who are currently stranded in refugee camps on the Mexican side of the border might now try to cross over again to request asylum. 

But first, let’s review just how much the Republican strategy to politicize the border fell short in the midterms. In Arizona—a border state—Mark Kelly held onto his Senate seat fairly comfortably, even though his Republican opponent, Blake Masters, advocated the racist “great replacement theory,” which contends that Democrats are deliberately promoting illegal immigration to reshape the electorate in their favor. Along the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, a predicted “red wave” failed to materialize. Flagship anti-immigrant groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, are sputtering impotently; FAIR even tweeted a nasty message about Pennsylvania Senator-elect John Fetterman’s Brazilian-born wife, Gisele, calling her an “illegal alien” who “used her husband for amnesty.” 

Nevertheless, it shouldn’t go unmentioned that one reason this right-wing immigration rhetoric failed to catch fire in the midterm election was because Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ruthlessly continued to use Trump-era policies to keep turning back asylum-seekers. His latest maneuver reveals once again how U.S. strategy worked. In recent months, surges of Venezuelans started reaching the border, alongside the Central Americans who had been the bulk of the migrants. First, Mexico changed its rules, surely under U.S. pressure, and started requiring Venezuelans to apply for entry visas. The new policy stopped most Venezuelans from arriving by air, instead forcing them to trek through the dangerous Darien Gap rain forest in eastern Panama. Firsthand reports from the Darien, including a moving article in The New York Times, chronicled how migrants are actually dying along the exodus route. 

But the visa requirement wasn’t enough. Thousands of Venezuelans continued to arrive by land on the southern banks of the Rio Grande and started crossing in large groups—to the delight of Fox News and its aerial camera drones. Here, Secretary Mayorkas had a problem: The U.S. did not have diplomatic relations with Venezuela, so he couldn’t deport Venezuelans there directly, and at first Mexico refused to accept them. (Unlike the thousands of deported Central Americans, who have huddled in makeshift refugee camps back in Mexico, in some cases for years.) 

The U.S. and Mexico subsequently made a new agreement, and on October 13, the U.S. Border Patrol also started pushing Venezuelan asylum-seekers back across the border under the aegis of Title 42, the health quarantine measure that Trump had misused during the pandemic. Already, thousands of Venezuelans are back in Mexico, many in a huge encampment in Ciudad Juarez, across the river from El Paso, Texas. The deportations have split up Venezuelan families, in an ugly echo of the harsh Trump strategy. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no public health justification for the continued imposition of Title 42.) 

Mayorkas’s maneuver succeeded overnight. Fox News was suddenly deprived of up-to-date TV pictures of the so-called “invasion,” and Republican governors now had fewer Venezuelans to lure onto buses and dump in the laps of liberal communities such as New York City and Martha’s Vineyard. This limited Republicans to preaching to the already converted, because without fresh video footage of emerging chaos, the centrist U.S. media was largely able to ignore the story. 

Judge Sullivan’s decision on November 15 vacating Title 42 could change this equation suddenly. Fox News is no doubt reinforcing its permanent outpost in Eagle Pass, Texas, and readying its drones for more alarmist aerial shots if migrants start crossing en masse again. 

It should be noted too that during the midterm campaign, Republicans were also undone by an anti-immigrant messaging blunder that actually turned the far right’s professed border concerns into a joke. The hysterical warnings that flowed forth from right-wing voices in the media over a bizarre theory that smuggled fentanyl might, for reasons no one ever bothered to explain, end up in Halloween candy prompted nationwide derision. (Narcotics are certainly smuggled northward—but the drugs are nearly always carried on main highways through the ports of entry, often by U.S. citizens.)

What’s more, the FoxNews–Republican propaganda offensive has started to unravel in another area: the supposed “war zone” on the U.S. side of the border. Anyone who has been down there recently will not be surprised that the lurid Fox accounts don’t square with reality in towns like McAllen and Eagle Pass, Texas, where life mostly continues as usual. In fact, The Monitor, the excellent local paper in McAllen, reported in October that crime there had reached a 37-year low. McAllen police chief Victor Rodriguez told the paper that “the rest of the world thinks crime is through the roof and that this is a lawless region.”  

The right’s failure to manufacture border hysteria and win significant votes should prompt Alejandro Mayorkas and the Biden administration to stop carrying on Trump’s policies and to start obeying the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980, which guarantees migrants the right to ask for asylum. Fox News and the Republicans routinely describe the people who cross our border as “illegal aliens.” While this expression may be technically correct, it is hardly accurate. Many, in fact still probably most, of those who cross these days immediately surrender to the Border Patrol so that they can start the asylum process; this is not standard criminal behavior. Others increasingly have been trying to evade the authorities—because they knew (until Judge Sullivan’s decision) that many of them would otherwise be immediately sent back to Mexico under Title 42—or, in the case of more than 26,000 Haitians so far, put on planes and deported back to their gang-ridden nation.  

But perhaps the most significant action that the Biden administration could take to immediately start reducing the flow of refugees northward would be to end America’s economic war against Venezuela. Many observers, including leading opposition figures inside Venezuela, agree that the harsh general economic sanctions first imposed by the Trump State Department have been a major contributor to generating more than six million Venezuelan refugees, the largest such exodus in Latin America’s history—without weakening the undemocratic Nicolás Maduro regime. The Biden administration could end those general sanctions (while maintaining targeted economic pressure against Maduro and the top generals around him), at little or no political cost here in the U.S. Only in Florida could such a move lose support for the Democrats, among right-wing Cuban Americans and well-off Venezuelan exiles, and the 2022 midterm elections just proved that the Sunshine State is already solidly red.