So, governors are doing what? Over the last month, 8 Republican state governors have sent (or said they’ll send) armed personnel to the Texas-Mexico border.
Who are these “armed personnel”? It differs state to state. Arizona, South Dakota, Iowa and Arkansas are sending National Guard troops, while Ohio, Nebraska and Florida are sending their Highway Patrol troopers or other state law enforcement agents. Texas has sent both.
But wait. Only two of those states border Mexico. When he announced his National Guard deployment, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he hoped the move would help “reduce the adverse impact of illegal immigration on Arkansas.” But states like Arkansas and Iowa are affected minimally by unauthorized immigration. If it helps to explain why all these Republican governors are taking action, it should be noted that some are facing reelection and need to lock down the Trump wing of their party’s base, while more than one is eying a potential presidential run in a few years.
How did this all start? In early March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he’d send 500 members of the Texas National Guard to the border; later, in May, he announced hundreds more from the state’s Department of Public Safety. Then, in early June, Abbott and Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey sent a letter to all 48 other states requesting reinforcements.
How bad is the border problem? In a press conference in May, Abbott claimed that Biden’s “open-border policies” had led to an increase in fentanyl crossing the border, as well as unauthorized crossings by migrants. (Fentanyl seizures along the southern border have been rising since 2016.) This year, Customs and Border Protection has already crossed the 20-year watermark for arrests on the border. In the first half of 2021, Border Patrol apprehended over 900,000 people, more than in the entirety of 2019 during the last significant uptick in migration. But more apprehensions does not necessarily mean there are more individuals crossing into the U.S. (more on that later).
Can officers from Nebraska or Iowa actually arrest unauthorized immigrants in another state? It remains unclear. State police and National Guard—from any state, under any orders—have zero jurisdiction to enforce federal immigration policy. Only CBP (on the border) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (in the interior) can do that. So there’s a strong legal argument that a Florida Highway Patrol officer taking someone into custody for crossing the border illegally could be guilty of false arrest or unlawful detention.
The National Guard has been sent to the border before, right? Yes, and their troops have essentially done busy work. In 2018, Arizona National Guard members deployed on the border were literally tasked with mucking out manure from the stables that held Border Patrol’s horses. At other times, they’ve helped train local law enforcement or erect barriers. When Ohio’s governor sent Highway Patrol to the border this week, he said they would assist in “border surveillance” efforts.
What’s different now? There’s one big difference: In the past, the federal government has commanded National Guard troops to the border—not just under President Donald Trump but also Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and even Joe Biden. This time, however, it’s individual state governors sending them.
Do National Guard members report to their governor, or the president? Both, actually. State National Guard members have two commanders: their governors and, above that, the U.S. president.
So who’s paying for this? Normally, when Washington requests National Guard members at the border, Washington pays. Otherwise, state taxpayers are on the line for funding their National Guard and law enforcement like highway patrol. Texas has offered to reimburse at least some states who send law enforcement through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a preexisting resource-sharing agreement between states. But also, in a bizarre and unprecedented turn of events, a billionaire Republican megadonor from Tennessee has paid for some of the deployment. Willis Johnson, through the Willis and Reba Johnson’s Foundation, donated $ 1 million directly to the state of South Dakota to fund National Guard troops on the border.
Is that even allowed? A state lawmaker says it’s legal, but security experts have called the moved unethical and dangerous. “You certainly don’t want our national security priorities up to the highest bidder,” Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight told the Washington Post.
OK. But why is this all happening in the first place? Governors Abott and Doucey might genuinely feel that their states are in crisis. But yes, there are politics: The Republican Party’s midterm strategy is clearly going to be hammering Biden on his, in their words, “open-border policies.” Positioning truckloads of cops and National Guard on the border certainly helps create the appearance of crisis.
So, is there a crisis, or not? Immigration advocates like to say that “crisis” is a political term—partisans use it when it’s useful. Right now, we are seeing a higher number than we’ve seen in the last 20 years of CBP “apprehensions”—i.e., people who CBP officers have come across on the border and detained. And people are crossing in higher numbers on parts of the border unused to heavy traffic, too. Specifically, Texas’s Rio Grande Valley has become a much more popular location to cross the border than it has been before. This puts a lot of strain on unprepared local resources.
Why are more people crossing the border? It might sound confusing, but actually they’re not. Even though apprehensions are way up, the actual number of unique individuals crossing the border is believed to be much lower. Not everyone who crosses the border gets caught or apprehended, but many of the people who attempt to cross the border try and get caught multiple times (CBP calls this “recidivism”). And experts suggest we may be seeing the highest-ever recidivism rate this year.
Why are there so many repeat crossers right now? The simple answer is Title 42. That’s an obscure public-health measure that the Trump administration used to shut the border to asylum-seekers when the Covid pandemic started. Biden has kept Title 42 mostly in place. Before that, people seeking asylum in the U.S. were generally permitted to remain in the country (often in detention) as they awaited the outcome of their asylum case in court. But under Title 42, all of them have been apprehended and either returned to Mexico or summarily “expelled” to their home country without any legal proceedings. Thousands of the people returned to Mexico have decided simply to try to cross again.
So the border isn’t “open”? Like Trump, Biden has kept the door almost entirely closed on asylum, with only a sliver of people making it in.
What’s all the ruckus from Republicans about then? While recidivism accounts for a significant portion of the high number of apprehensions, even when you account for repeat crossings, there are many more people trying to cross the border at this moment than any time in the past decade besides 2019. So it is an increase, just not an unprecedented one—especially when compared to the far greater numbers of annual apprehensions made in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
Why are more people coming to cross the border? Is that because of Biden? Biden took office with a more welcoming rhetoric towards migrants, and that may very well have encouraged some people to attempt to cross the border. But the current uptick in the number of people arriving actually began months before Biden became president, and there are, of course, many factors: Multiple hurricanes ravaged Central America in November; the Covid pandemic has intensified poverty and gangs’ efforts at extortion; cartel violence in Mexico is at record-high levels; and political crisis in Haiti has erupted in street violence, to name a few of the “root causes.”
How will this all end? Eventually, the National Guard members will be sent home. It’s unclear when exactly that will be. Some that Trump deployed in 2020 are still at the border. The Guard sent by the federal government will likely be recalled as soon as the number of people crossing goes down. Increases in migration tend to be seasonal, and as we get to the hottest months of summer, it will likely decrease. Also, Biden is expected to phase out Title 42 over the coming weeks and months, which will allow for many waiting at the border to enter the country lawfully. As for the additional state officers sent to the border, the decision for when they will go home will be made by the Republican governors who sent them.