In the world of GOP politics, the issues of border security and immigration have fused together: If the border isn’t secured then any talk of immigration is inconsequential. Accordingly, border security is the fee to pay to enter the broader immigration debate. It seems that the party’s leading candidates in the 2016 presidential election have been willing to pay this fee, adopting hardline stances and rhetoric on the two issues. But is there any is there any merit to the narrative that Trump, Cruz, and Rubio have portrayed – that our border is a permeable, chaotic mess – or is such tough talk just pandering to the GOP’s base? The former seems dubious, given that immigration is the lowest it has been in two decades. Combine that with the growing importance of the Hispanic electorate in the all-important general election swing states of Colorado, Nevada, and Florida, and the only remaining dividend for border bellicosity seems to be in the primaries. Of course, telling half-truths about immigration and alienating key demographics, all to win the nomination, is a pyrrhic victory. Hardline stances on national security, terrorism, and border control generally don’t win over moderates and swing voters. Yet the remaining GOP candidates may have forgotten this fact in their race to the fringe, and whomever emerges from the trenches victoriously will certainly have a rude awakening.
Although immigration has recently vaulted to the top of the Republican agenda, Donald Trump is hardly the first Republican running for president to press the issue of border security. Former candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney also touted their plan to slow the tide of illegal immigrants. Yet the totem that border insecurity is the source of America’s complex immigration issues is far from accurate. A quick glance at the southern border doesn’t reveal an overburdened, porous security nightmare. In fact, over the past decade funding for Customs and Border Protection has increased over 75 percent. The dramatic budget increases have helped pave the way for over 1,500 watch towers, the employment of 20,000 patrol agents, and 650 miles of fencing, among other improvements. When asked what more they would do, Republicans like Chris Christie offer up ambiguous solutions like “using technology” to secure the border – something that is already done via the extensive use of drones and sensory equipment in the most remote parts of the border. The security rhetoric entirely fails to acknowledge what Border Patrol agents have been saying for years: The vast majority of illegal immigrants come to the US legally and have overstayed their visas. At best, tough talk on controlling the border is largely irrelevant to the actual lynchpins of the immigration debate. At worst, it’s a harmful distraction.
Nonetheless, facts have never deterred a good populist cause, and the mantra of border security certainly qualifies. The US-Mexico border has always loomed large in American politics. There is a long political history and expediency of playing to the fears regarding people of color coming into the country and ruining the economy, destroying neighborhoods, and killing American citizens. This type of language is increasingly becoming common fare in right-of-center politics. For example, in 2006, Representative Steve King of Iowa justified additional fencing on the Mexican border by claiming, “We do [it] with livestock all the time.” The economic narrative here is nothing new and is rather simple: Patriots must make sure that illegal immigrants are not taking American jobs. But when compared to the large breadth of research done on immigration’s effects on the economy, this narrative does not hold much water. Research actually shows that immigration positively affects US workers’ wages and employment because immigrants’ labor specialization is often much different than that of American-born workers, and their labor in many instances has kept entire industries alive. Despite these findings, recent polls show a majority of Americans believe that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from US citizens. In an economy that has yet to see an aggregate increase in wages, the Republicans believe that their tough-on-the-border strategy will fall on receptive ears that tend to have selective hearing when it comes to the empirical truths about immigration.
In the post-9/11 era, national security can be as much of a flashpoint as racial issues. This is also reflected in the border debate, as the rise of ISIL and the recent spurt of US domestic terror plots have agitated a fear in the general public not seen for 15 years. The American public’s trepidation has prompted candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to sound tough on issues of immigration and terrorism. Anecdotes of Syrian nationals trying to cross the Mexican border and the fears of terrorists disguised as refugees has only made Republicans double down their tough on immigration policies and rhetoric. While this doubling down is increasingly common fare in a primary distinguished by its often over the top and bombastic tone, the far right appeal of Cruz and Trump doesn’t translate to the general electorate. By not calibrating their fearmongering, they risk overshooting the average voter’s legitimate considerations about fighting terrorism.
If national security and border control have become the dual pillars of the Republican immigration conversation, the Democratic candidates have moved in the exact opposite direction. Not only have Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders embraced President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, which would protect five million undocumented immigrants from deportation, they’ve promised to legalize millions more and extend government services. If these are both sides’ political gambles, the smart money is on the Democrats. The Hispanic electorate that now represents swing votes in over 14 states and a November poll in these battleground states show the current Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, with a net favorability rating among Hispanics at negative 56. The story the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have been peddling Republican primary voters on border security and immigration has propelled them both to the top of polls and the delegate count alike. However, the looming general election has had moderating effects even on the likes of Donald Trump, who recently suggested that if president he would be more “flexible” on the immigration issue. It remains to be seen if America’s generally short political memory assists the Republican nominee come November. Nonetheless, the GOP’s own internal border and immigration conversations have already done substantial damage to an issue that demands sober-mindedness.