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Why Mike Johnson Is Having a MAGA Meltdown Over the Border Deal

The House speaker is afraid that if the Senate bill passes, the GOP will partially own the border crisis. He—and Trump—also fear the bill will work.

House Speaker Mike Johnson
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson

Because Republicans are so profoundly concerned about the border, the House GOP leadership’s first response to the new Senate border security deal was to declare that the House will never even vote on it. Why? Because if it did, the bill would pass the House on a comfortable bipartisan basis, and for Republicans, that is an unacceptable outcome.

House Speaker Mike Johnson’s reaction to the announcement of a deal late Sunday from a bipartisan group of senators was particularly telling. The bill, Johnson said, is “dead on arrival” in the House, because it “won’t come close to ending the border catastrophe the president has created.”

In saying this, Johnson exposed the real GOP calculation: If the bill passes, Biden might no longer fully own what happens at the border. Republicans will have participated in passing a solution, making it harder for them to blame Biden for it. That’s plainly why Donald Trump keeps urging Republicans to kill the bill.

The bill would, in fact, do a great deal that Republicans say they want. It would make it significantly harder to qualify for asylum, and it would channel major new expenditures into border security, expanded detention of migrants, and expedited processing of asylum claims, reducing backlogs in migrant processing—including faster removals of those who don’t qualify.

The Senate bill—negotiated by Republican James Lankford, independent Kyrsten Sinema, and Democrat Chris Murphy—would also create a new authority for the president to effectively shut down asylum seeking entirely once encounters with migrants hit an average of 4,000 per day. At 5,000, it would mandate this.

Trump and his allies are pretend-raging that the deal would “allow” 5,000 migrants to illegally enter daily. In fact, that number refers to encounters with migrants, meaning they’re put into the system where their claims are adjudicated. While many do get released while they await hearings, the law requires that those picked up on U.S. soil receive an asylum hearing if sought. Courts are badly backlogged, and detaining all migrants is logistically impossible, requiring enormous expenditures that the public would never tolerate.

That’s why every president releases a lot of migrants—including Trump, who released hundreds of thousands of them. True, the bill would not reinstate his policy of forcing migrants to await hearings in Mexico or basically end asylum seeking entirely, as the House GOP approach would. But this is what makes the deal a compromise.

The bill just would address problems Republicans constantly complain about. By beefing up investments in the asylum process and streamlining it so asylum officers (not judges) hear many cases, it would reduce those backlogs. Expanded detention would mean more migrants are detained, not released.

In short, the Trump-MAGA position is effectively that if the release of migrants into the U.S. is not eliminated entirely, no improvements count for anything. This explains why Republicans are so divided. Many in the Senate admit it would do a lot of what Republicans want. But that’s also why House Republicans are rejecting it.

Johnson gave away the game on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. He falsely declared that Biden “opened the border” and “did it intentionally.” In this, Johnson hinted at his oft-expressed version of “great replacement theory,” that Democrats are scheming to convert migrants into Democratic voters. Johnson insisted that Biden “doesn’t need” a bill to fix the border; that he “has the authority right now.”

That’s baloney: Even Trump was unable to use executive authority to achieve MAGA’s goals, though he tried extremely hard. That’s why he ended up releasing many migrants too. But that aside, the rub here is that Johnson and Trump must sink the Senate compromise in order to keep arguing that Biden wants the border “open” and is “intentionally” refusing to take executive actions to shut it down. A bipartisan compromise that stabilizes the border wrecks that big lie, not to mention making the dabbling in great replacement theory—which is central to the MAGA worldview—look even crazier.

It should be mentioned that some Democrats are attacking the bill, arguing that it sells out our commitment to international human rights ideals. And yes, the compromise is extremely problematic in many ways. It’s awful to contemplate what Trump might do as president with the authority to shut down asylum seeking if certain migration thresholds are reached. This, plus the more stringent bar to getting asylum, do threaten core Democratic values.

However, this is not a simple calculation for Democrats, and it’s clear why some might see reasons to support it. Those investments in asylum processing would give Biden tools to make the system function better (though serious questions remain about how quickly this would happen). Importantly, the bill would also provide immediate work permits to enable migrants who pass the initial asylum screening to get jobs, potentially meaning fewer crowding homeless shelters in urban liberal strongholds.

As I’ve argued, a reasonable compromise could involve conceding restrictions on asylum in exchange for legalizing the “Dreamers” and others here legally and wider pathways for migrants to apply for entry from abroad. The goal should be to shift incentives toward that way of migrating, so fewer show up at the border seeking asylum and straining resources.

In some ways the deal enshrines that set of tradeoffs. Though it scandalously neglects the Dreamers yet again, it preserves Biden’s parole programs, which allow tens of thousands to arrive monthly from abroad, and it creates 250,000 new green card slots over five years. It also beefs up due process for migrants in certain critical respects.

None of this makes the bill’s serious downsides more acceptable. But the combination of making the asylum system function—plus preserving legal channels for application from abroad—could have political benefits over time. If this balance works, it could persuade swing voters that migration and asylum seeking can be managed in ways benefiting the country, making the ground less fertile for MAGA’s natalist appeals.

Admittedly, the best political outcome for Dems may be that House Republicans kill the compromise, turning voters against Republicans and sparing Democrats from supporting something that alienates their base and threatens terrible humanitarian outcomes. Yet not doing anything new at the border—maintaining the status quo—while heading into a general election against Trump carries its own risks.

In fact, the latter is exactly the calculation that MAGA Republicans are making. Notably, Trump himself greeted the bill’s release by declaring it a “great gift to Democrats,” laying that obvious truth bare for all to see. As Johnson has helpfully demonstrated, he’s simply operationalizing Trump’s scam.