What the midterm election results could mean for border states and immigration reform
Record-breaking border crossings and immigrant deaths kept immigration at the forefront of the news and the minds of many voters this election season. U.S. immigration authorities documented 2.56 million border crossings during fiscal year 2021—the highest recorded annual tally. The surge has overwhelmed border towns, local law enforcement, nonprofits, and Border Patrol agents. At least 853 immigrants died crossing the southern border during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30—another record high.
The humanitarian crisis at the southern border is feeding off another crisis: dysfunction in the legal immigration system. Record crossings mirror record backlogs in immigration courts. Consulates and embassies are struggling to process visa applications. Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly failed to pass comprehensive legislation that addresses problems in the legal immigration system. Instead, presidential administrations have relied on stopgap measures like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and ignored the long-term, human consequences of polices that were designed to be temporary.
Immigration galvanized voters across the country—not just those in border communities. Though the economy remained voters’ top priority, 59 percent of voters listed immigration as a “very important” issue, according to an October Harvard CAPS–Harris Poll. Seventy-one percent of evangelicals polled in a new Lifeway Research survey said it was imperative for Congress to pass immigration reform.
But what do the midterm results actually mean for immigration policy? As border states continue to take immigration enforcement into their own hands, governors races in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico will have an effect on border policy. Experts say a lame-duck Congress could prioritize key immigration legislation. With several seats still up in the air in the House of Representatives and control of the Senate in question, Republicans may not get the chance to take the lead on immigration policy.
TEXAS: Fed up with federal inaction, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has bused more than 10,000 immigrants to the sanctuary cities of Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York City. The busing is one part of Abbott’s broader border security initiative, Operation Lone Star. Last March, the governor issued a disaster declaration that covers 53 counties on or near the border to give him the authority to deploy 10,000 Department of Public Safety officers and Texas National Guard members. The Texas Legislature passed House Bill 9 in September that allocated $2 billion to border security over the next two years to fund Operation Lone Star, including $750 million for a border wall.
“Unless President Biden enforces the immigration laws passed by Congress, Texas will step up and use its own strategies to secure the border and negotiate with Mexico to seek solutions that will keep Texans safe,” Abbott said in a statement. One million of the 2.56 million border encounters last year took place in Texas. In April, Abbott stepped up drug inspections of commercial vehicles at a Texas-Mexico border crossing. Truckers in Mexico shut down a border crossing in Hidalgo to protest long delays.
The Lone Star State’s border policy will likely remain much the same after Abbott’s reelection victory over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, who repeatedly referred to the governor’s border policies as political stunts. But O’Rourke walked a tightrope on immigration throughout his own campaign. He claimed Abbott’s Operation Lone Star wasted taxpayer dollars and harmed the National Guard members who are deployed far away from home.
Traditionally a Democratic stronghold, the South Texas border region has shifted to the right as border crossings continue to skyrocket. Some political analysts predicted a red wave in the region. But the midterm shift was less dramatic than expected. Monica De La Cruz defeated Democrat Michelle Vallejo to become the first Republican to win Congressional District 15. Republican incumbent Tony Gonzalez held onto District 23 and fended off his Democratic challenger, John Lira. But Democrat Henry Cuellar won reelection in neighboring District 28, and Democrat Vicente Gonzalez defeated Republican incumbent Mayra Flores, the first female, Mexican-born member of the House of Representatives.
ARIZONA: Republican Gov. Doug Ducey began busing immigrants to Washington, D.C., in May. Ducey accused the federal government of turning a blind eye to “the worst border crisis in over 20 years” that cost the state an extra $105 million. Now, he is locked in a battle with the federal government over 130 shipping containers that are filling gaps in the state’s southern border barrier. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation challenged the move in an Oct. 15 letter that claimed several of the containers trespass on federal and Native American reservation lands. The agency said Arizona’s efforts interfere with federal contracts to build an actual wall to fill the gaps.
But Ducey refused to wait for President Joe Biden to build a border wall. “It took the feds since August to write a letter? If this is any indication of their sense of urgency, then perhaps that explains the problem we’re having,” said the governor’s communications director, C.J. Karamargin.
Republican Kari Lake and Democrat Katie Hobbs remain neck-and-neck in the battle for the governor’s office in Arizona as election officers count the final ballots. Lake made border security a central tenet of her campaign. Like Ducey, she blames federal inaction for the influx of illegal crossers and drugs. But she plans to take it a step further. Lake pledged to declare an invasion at the border on her first day in office. On the campaign trail, she called for representatives from other states to join an “interstate commission” to work together to secure the border. Article I, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution gives Arizona the right to “fend off the invasion at our southern border,” Lake argues, since the federal government has failed to protect the states.
Immigration also played a key role in Arizona’s U.S. Senate race. So far, Republican Blake Masters is trailing Democrat Mark Kelly, though election officials are still counting votes. Both candidates campaigned on border security. Kelly advocated for more border officers and “physical barriers where they make sense.” But Masters argued his opponent would not do enough to protect the state and screen crossers for illicit drugs. His 40-second political ad connected a spike in fentanyl overdoses with the southern border surge.
NEW MEXICO: Democratic incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s won reelection over challenger Mark Ronchetti in the Land of Enchantment. In 2019, the governor bused dozens of immigrants out of border communities to Denver. Christian congregations provided shelter and aid. The state sued federal immigration officials for releasing asylum seekers in border communities without assistance. Overrun with asylum-seekers, the cities of Las Cruces and Deming declared a state of emergency. A federal judge dismissed the case. But during her campaign, Lujan Grisham declined to comment directly on the efforts by Texas and Arizona to bus migrants to sanctuary cities.
Ronchetti campaigned on deploying police and National Guard soldiers to fight the smuggling of immigrants and drugs. He pledged to eliminate sanctuary policies that protect illegal immigrants from federal immigration officials when they commit crimes and promised to create a Border Strike Force within New Mexico’s Department of Public Safety to “target border-related crimes.”
FARM BILL: Spearheaded by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act will streamline the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program and create a legal pathway for unauthorized farm workers. It passed the House in 2019 and again in 2021. Supporters say the act will lower food prices and incentivize legal immigration.
With several seats still up in the air, Republicans are close to the 218 needed to capture control in the House. A Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia and yet-to-be-called races in Nevada and Arizona will determine control of the Senate. If Republicans take control, Jennie Murray, the president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, hopes Congress will put the remainder of this session to good use. “We want to urge Congress to really use the lame duck session to move some of this bipartisan work,” she said. “The act is very, very close.”
DACA: A lame-duck Congress has less incentive to pass the DREAM Act, legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship for the more than 600,000 childhood immigrants who are living in limbo as DACA nears its end. Created by the Obama administration in 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals provides individuals brought to the United States illegally as children with Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, and work permits. Recipients renew their status every two years.
Congress first introduced legislation to protect undocumented children in 2001. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act passed the House in 2010. Muzaffar Chrishti, a senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute, said while the 2021 version of the act has some bipartisan support, Congress feels little urgency. A federal judge declared the program illegal last year, but the courts have yet to pull the plug on it. Congress will likely wait to act until the decision reaches the Supreme Court. “The courts have saved them from acting for a very long time,” Chrishti said.
SECURING THE BORDER? In an interview with CNN, GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said addressing the immigration crisis is first on the docket if his party takes control of Congress. But he was less detailed about specific reforms or how Republicans will garner Democratic support. “The first thing you’ll see is a bill to control the border,” he said. McCarthy also referenced the Migrant Protection Protocols, a Trump-era program that forced asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while immigration judges decided their cases. The Biden administration officially ended the program in August.
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