As economic concerns like inflation subside, Republicans are looking for a new 2024 message they can ride to the White House and back into unified control of Congress. And the GOP increasingly seems to be settling on a familiar line of attack for an issue that isn’t going away: immigration.
An influx of illegal border crossings has prompted Republicans to characterize Democrats and President Joe Biden as weak on border security, arguing that only hardline GOP solutions can fix the problem.
There’s just one wrinkle in that narrative: It’s Democrats who suddenly want to address the border—and it’s Republicans who are willing to let the problems fester.
Chief among those Republicans is former President Donald Trump.
Trump has said “a bad border deal is far worse than no border deal,” and he’s advocated for Republicans to “only make a deal that is PERFECT ON THE BORDER.”
“I do not think we should do a Border Deal, at all, unless we get EVERYTHING needed to shut down the INVASION of Millions & Millions of people,” Trump said on Truth Social earlier this month.
And just in case it wasn’t already clear how much politics was playing into Trump’s assessment, he said the quiet part out loud, too.
“A Border Deal now would be another Gift to the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump said on Truth Social last week. “They need it politically.”
It’s rare to see politicians be so nakedly political about not wanting to address an issue. (Trump, of course, is one of the few politicians who consistently gets away with it.)
But Republicans in Congress aren’t being much subtler as they argue against a border compromise emerging from the Senate.
Perhaps no one has been as transparent about the calculus as conservative Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX). Nehls asked Tuesday night why Republicans would “do anything to try to help improve that dismal number with a border bill being drafted in the Senate that isn't really serious about border security?”
“The idea that you need Congress to do something to secure the southern border is just all horse manure,” he said.
Nehls told CNN earlier this month that he was “not willing to do too damn much right now to help a Democrat and to help Joe Biden’s approval rating.”
And he added Tuesday night that Republicans “don't have to do a damn thing.”
That was a common sentiment Tuesday. Time and again, Republicans who spoke with The Daily Beast weren’t exactly jumping at the chance to make improvements at the border, even as they argue illegal crossings—which are at their highest ever—constitute a full-blown crisis.
Perhaps no one on Tuesday demonstrated the tortured calculus as well as Rep. Andy Ogles (R-TN).
Asked whether Republicans should accept incremental action on the border, Ogles indicated he wasn’t interested in half a loaf. “We’re allowing 1.8 million people in illegally,” Ogles said, barely attempting to answer the question.
Asked whether that was better than allowing, say, 2 million people into the United States illegally, Ogles once again deflected. “What would be better is enforcing the laws that we have,” he said.
And when The Daily Beast brought up that Republicans have presented the situation on the border as a crisis, Ogles interjected at that word—crisis. “That’s been created by the Biden administration. We didn’t have this problem under Trump, this level of crisis under Obama,” he said. “This is manufactured by Biden.”
Ogles suggested Republicans shouldn’t accept anything less than H.R. 2, the hardline immigration bill House Republicans passed earlier in the year—a measure which garnered zero Democratic votes and is dead on arrival in the Senate.
“We passed House Bill Two,” Ogles said. “We’ve done our job.”
That was a common theme among Republicans Tuesday. Over and over, Republicans pointed to the House GOP’s passage of a messaging bill as sufficient action on the border. And they argued the crisis was on Biden to solve—not them.
“No. 1, Biden created this problem and he can fix it,” Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) told The Daily Beast. “Under the same authority that he created the problem he can fix the problem. So saying that Congress has to do something to secure the border is a false assumption.”
The idea that Biden can shut down illegal crossings at the southern border via executive order with the stroke of a pen is one championed by Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA). Last week, Johnson argued that Biden must take “executive action immediately to reverse the catastrophe he has created.”
“President Biden falsely claimed yesterday he needs Congress to pass a new law to allow him to close the southern border, but he knows that is untrue,” Johnson said Saturday on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Much of Johnson’s argument rests with Biden’s rollback of Title 42, a COVID-era immigration restriction that began during the Trump administration to quickly expel migrants and effectively blocked migrants from seeking asylum. If Biden would just put Trump’s Title 42 back into place, many House Republicans argue, the president would bring down border crossings.
“They don’t need any more money. They don’t need any more men. They don't need any more equipment,” conservative Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) told The Daily Beast.
“It’s the same 1,954 miles that we had in 2019,” he said. “We had it secure. This thing was down to a trickle. It was under control. What changed? What changed since the Trump administration is policy.”
Higgins’ message that a return to Trump’s immigration policy would secure the border was a common argument Tuesday. Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK)—leader of the largest caucus of House Republicans, the Republican Study Committee—agreed that the problem was a White House one, not a Capitol Hill issue.
“There’s been no laws changed since President Trump was in office,” Hern told The Daily Beast. “The only thing that’s changed is Joe Biden has undone every executive order that President Trump had in place, and that’s where you’re seeing the border crossings.”
But short of Biden ruling via executive order—a maneuver Republicans have long decried as giving the president excess power—or embracing their hard-right immigration bill, Republicans aren’t willing to let the president off the hook. And many are unwilling to play ball on a negotiated immigration deal.
That has been a major problem for some Republicans, like the ones negotiating the bill in the Senate. A senior GOP aide for one of those lawmakers told The Daily Beast Tuesday night that Republicans were shooting themselves in the foot if they chose to pass up this opportunity.
“Republicans were elected to secure the border,” this senior GOP aide said. “The fact that we’re putting one man’s political desires over the rare opportunity to make the border safer is a betrayal to our voters and the American people.”
The aide continued that if Republicans didn’t act “simply because Donald Trump told us not to,” then they would have “squandered a huge opportunity.”
“If you want to blame Democrats for the border,” the aide added, “Republicans can’t be the problem.”
Several Republican senators—even some who have endorsed Trump—are also speaking out in favor of the bipartisan border talks, noting that swing voters may not forgive them if they fail to act.
Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) told CNN Tuesday night that “voters in swing states, for whom the border is the No. 1 priority, have every right to look at and say to us: ‘You blew your opportunity. We were ready to give you a shot and you blew it.’”
Democrats are all too happy to point out that it is, indeed, Republicans who are standing in the way of action on the border.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) had sharp words for the GOP obstructionism.
“As my late father would say, they’re full of shit,” McGovern told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know how else to describe it!”
McGovern said Republicans were being cynical—“such a bunch of frauds”—by yelling and screaming that Congress needs to act, only to stand in the way of action once the Senate comes up with legislation to address the problem.
“I need to go to the Capitol physician and see if they have a neck brace because I have whiplash,” McGovern said, adding that Republicans simply were “not interested in governing.”
White House spokesman Andrew Bates had a similar message Tuesday, accusing Johnson of “twisting himself into a pretzel to delay border security.”
Still, not every Republican was interested in just disregarding potential solutions to the influx of border crossings, which rose to 250,000 last month.
Some House GOP moderates, like Problem Solvers Caucus Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA)—who represents a district Biden won in 2020—said “he’d take half a loaf over no loaf.”
“Incremental gains are good,” he said.
Asked about Trump’s comments that Republicans should only take a “perfect” border bill and should instead preserve the issue for political gain, Fitzpatrick quickly dismissed it.
“We have an entire year to go for this session and we can’t stop legislating. We got to do our jobs,” he said.
Fitzpatrick was clear that he didn’t want to commit to a bill he hadn’t read, but he said he wasn’t “going to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”
That, however, seems to be a minority view. Republicans are clearly taking their marching orders from Trump at this point, and are counting on voters to punish Democrats for border issues—and just trust that Republicans, if given the opportunity with Trump, would do something about the issue, even if they previously placed politics before policy.
Influential House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC)—notably the House’s only backer of Republican Nikki Haley for president—likened the GOP swallowing smaller steps on immigration reform to telling someone he’s giving them a car but actually giving them a bicycle.
“We’re just not doing it,” he told The Daily Beast.
Matt Fuller contributed to this report.