Bordering on the ridiculous: Cynical hypocrisy on immigration policy

Published January 11, 2024

By Rob Schofield

As with so many other problems afflicting modern America – the climate emergency, economic inequality, the federal debt, gun violence, racism, our threadbare public education system – there’s plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the nation’s broken immigration system.

Over the decades, politicians of both major political parties have frittered away several opportunities to enact and fund reforms that could seriously and responsibly address the fact that the U.S. is both home to 8-plus million undocumented workers and utterly dependent upon them to keep its economy running.

For the last several years, however, the chief architects of our present-day gridlock reside on the political right. And their obstruction has very little to do with substance and almost everything to do with politics.

Time and again, these forces have promoted preposterously cruel and impractical ideas like rounding up and deporting millions of people – including millions of DACA program participants who came to the U.S. as young children and have lived here for almost their entire lives — and building massive walls reminiscent of the old Soviet bloc.

Save for a hardcore group of white nationalists, the proponents of these ideas understand that such deeds will never be accomplished. They know that a bevy of American industries — construction, landscaping, custodial, meat and poultry packing, agriculture, and senior care, just to name a few — would collapse, and that responsible members of both parties will never let such policies come to fruition. But sadly, this hasn’t stopped efforts to spur, and capitalize on, voter fears.

This brand of cynical hypocrisy was on full display once again last week when U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson led the latest taxpayer-funded pilgrimage of Republican politicians to a small Texas town near the U.S.-Mexico border for a glorified photo opportunity.

Instead of trying to find common ground, Johnson served up another dish of right-wing red meat — loudly threatening a federal government shutdown later this month if Democrats don’t agree to enact of series of draconian policies for immigrants seeking humanitarian protection.

The policies to which Johnson was referring were the same extreme ideas included in a bill House Republicans advanced last May based on Trump-era immigration policies: resuming hundreds of miles of border wall construction, stripping funding from nonprofits that aid migrants, beefing up staffing of Border Patrol agents, and restricting the use of parole programs that the Biden administration has used to allow nationals from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela to work temporarily in the U.S.

Johnson and his pals know this isn’t a serious proposal. Indeed, a Texas lawmaker inadvertently admitted as much during Johnson’s dog-and-pony show when he said that House Republicans aren’t actually interested in passing any real immigration solutions at all.

To quote Congressman Troy Nehls: “I’m not willing to do too much right now to help a Democrat and to help Joe Biden’s approval rating.”

In other words, Nehls’s loose lips confirmed yet again what we have long known – namely, that the GOP’s strategy is not to craft effective and humane policies that might better control the flow of immigrants — much less acknowledge that millions of immigrants are vital to our economy and here to stay. Rather, it’s to foment fear and xenophobia, scare voters, and demonize President Biden in hopes that it will help their election prospects in November.

It’s a strategy the right has used for many years — on everything from flag burning to COVID-19 (the “Chinese virus”) to the rights of transgender people. The trick is to promote frightening imagery – ideally the kind that includes people who look or sound different to a lot of white middle-class voters – and thereby manipulate those same voters to cast ballots contrary to their own economic interest. This has been Donald Trump’s stock-in-trade ever since he arrived on the political scene with his fabricated allegations about Barack Obama’s birthplace.

Even here in North Carolina, where they live thousands of miles from the southwestern border and enjoy only the remotest chance of ever having any significant impact on the issue in Washington, conservative politicians have regularly turned to playing the anti-immigration card as a go-to election tactic. Senate candidate Ted Budd made strutting with a gun near the border a centerpiece image in his successful 2022 campaign, and state House Speaker and aspiring congressman Tim Moore has trekked south for multiple photo ops of the same ilk.

Interestingly, and to his credit, Sen. Thom Tillis has largely avoided this kind of shameless demagoguery during his years in Washington and has at least tried on occasion – thus far without much success — to build some bridges toward real solutions.

The bottom line: Coping with mass human migration is a vexing global problem that’s greatly worsened by the climate crisis, war, poverty, and the age-old desire of all people to lead better and safer lives. To have any hope of managing it effectively, the U.S. will have to craft common ground solutions that feature aid to countries in need, adequate funding for the domestic immigration infrastructure, and a commitment to basic human decency. The combination of right-wing grandstanding and fearmongering makes all of that much harder to achieve.