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Johnson tells Biden to close the border already

Immigration experts argue it’s not that simple

House Speaker Mike Johnson with Republican members of Congress, Jan. 3, in Eagle Pass, Texas Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay

Johnson tells Biden to close the border already

As negotiations over a border security bill drag on in the U.S. Senate, House Republicans are calling on President Joe Biden to do something now. They want him to close the border.

“President Biden falsely claimed he needs Congress to pass a new law to allow him to close the southern border, but he knows that is untrue,” House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., posted to X on Saturday. “As I explained to him in a letter late last year and have specifically reiterated to him on multiple occasions since, he can and must take executive action immediately to reverse the catastrophe he has created.”

Johnson’s assertion is one of the many reasons why he may not support the emerging Senate bill: In his view, Biden doesn’t need it.

Biden disagrees but has said he would “shut down the border right now and fix it quickly,” if given the power by Congress.

According to U.S. law, closing the border—or parts of the border—is within the president’s powers and has been done before, most extensively in the days after the 9/11 terror attacks. But whether Biden can fulfill GOP demands depends largely on the scope of what the speaker is asking for.

Johnson and other House Republicans want to stem the record-breaking flow of immigration over the southern border, which is overwhelming cities throughout the United States. In fiscal year 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection had nearly 2,476,000 encounters with migrants, a 4 percent increase over an already record-breaking year in 2022.

During his 23 years as the Tucson, Ariz., sector chief for U.S. Border Patrol, Victor Manjarrez heard plenty of immigration proposals that involved some sort of border shutdown. He has questions: Do Republicans want the president to block any crossings at all—legitimate or otherwise? Do they want him to shut all ports of entry? Do they want him to suspend immigration services?

Manjarrez remembers speaking with the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., years ago on these exact questions.

“The problem is that there isn’t a clear definition for what [shutting down the border] means,” Manjarrez said. “I think this was in 2010. Sen. McCain leaned forward and pointed his finger. ‘Chief, when are you going to shut this border down?’ And I said, ‘Sen. McCain, what does that mean to you?’ Sen. McCain kinda got ticked off at me for asking that question.”

Now that he’s retired from law enforcement and working as a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, Manjarrez continues to press for specifics. He has seen individual ports of entry get shut down before. The president has the authority to do so according to Title 19 of the United States Code.

As recently as December, the government has shut down individual points of entry such as the one in Lukeville, Ariz., which has remained closed for over a month, due to security concerns.

But shutting down all ports of entry as a means of addressing immigration could have devastating consequences for legitimate crossers such as businesses, transportation services, and U.S. citizens. And it wouldn’t strike at the heart of the problem. In August 2023, just over 181,000 U.S. border patrol encounters occurred between points of entry—78 percent of encounters in that month, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. An estimated 740 miles of the nearly 2,000-mile border are fenced or “walled” off with anti-pedestrian or anti-vehicle fencing, according to Government Accountability Office data compiled by analyst Adam Isacson.

More often than not, Manjarrez said, proponents of “closing the border” are looking for some sort of mitigation of the problem.

“Do you ask the chief of police in D.C. to eliminate all crime?” Manjarrez said. “We think, ‘Well, that’s crazy; we can’t do that.’ But we ask them to manage it. [The border] is not being characterized well. If you ask your average American, ‘What does shut down the border mean?’ they’re going to say, ‘No one comes in.’ That isn’t realistic.”

Manjarrez believes there are legitimate ways to mitigate illegal crossings. By changing long-term immigration policies, the country can deter immigrants from making the journey. Or the government can increase security. Both of those options might be components of the Senate-led immigration bill. But whether with congressional authority or without it, shutting the border down is a taller order than it might initially sound like.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


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