If you are a member of Congress headed to the United States’’ southern border, you will need a few things. A camera crew, of course — if a politician preens on the border and no one records it, it makes no sound. Comfortable shoes are a must, since you might climb down to the shore of the Rio Grande to gaze determinedly into Mexico, and you don’t want to slip in your wingtips.
Finally, you must purchase an appropriate shirt. Ideally it should be olive or khaki, and it’s best if it has tactical pockets. If you think someone might say, “Who are you kidding with that shirt, Congressman? Are you going to crawl through the brush in pursuit of cartel assassins?” don’t worry, no one will.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s trip to the border on Tuesday was a reminder: No stage outside of Washington is more regularly ascended by costumed congressmembers than the southern border. But unlike media events that bring useful attention to an issue, when politicians prance around at the border it makes actual reform less likely, not more.
At the border, McCarthy said that Republicans will move toward impeaching Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, mainly because they don’t like the Biden administration’s policies. If the secretary doesn’t resign, McCarthy said, Republicans will investigate him to “determine whether we can begin impeachment inquiry.”
McCarthy cited no acts of malfeasance on Mayorkas’s part, but if Republicans look hard enough, apparently they’ll find something they can call an impeachable offense.
There is absolutely no reason McCarthy couldn’t have made his announcement from a room in the Capitol. But if he did that, he and the other Republican members who accompanied him wouldn’t get to put on their outfits, nod seriously as they listen to Border Patrol agents and point meaningfully south.
In fairness, there are plenty of situations in which politicians create media events with no practical purpose to make a point, and sometimes change their clothes to do so. They don a hard hat to show that jobs are being created, or dress down for a visit to a disaster area or put on a hat and boots to clear brush like a real live cowboy.
But border visits have a special place in the hearts of Republican politicians, who love the photo ops they provide (if you’re lucky, they let you ride in a helicopter) and who roundly criticize Democrats for not doing the same kind of playacting. After President Biden tasked Vice President Harris with coordinating immigration policy last year, Republicans quickly pretended to be outraged that Harris had not done a border visit, tricking media organizations into demanding she explain her reluctance to perform the ritual.
What Democrats such as Harris surely realize is that the border visit photo op is meant to create the impression that immigration is not a policy challenge but a crisis, an emergency whose true horror must be witnessed firsthand. That’s the message Republicans send at these visits: Things are out of control, it’s an invasion, our country is being overwhelmed by foreigners and something must be done.
The truth is that Republicans’ desire to Do Something is severely limited. What they want more than anything else is an issue they can use to anger and terrify their base, as they reliably do in almost every election. And the fact that immigration largely failed to produce the results they hoped for in this year’s midterms, just as it did in 2020 and 2018, has not deterred them.
We know they aren’t serious about a policy solution because the outlines of a fix are well known to both sides in Washington — and they won’t go near it.
That solution would require a comprehensive bill that incorporated both parties’ priorities and reformed the immigration system for the better. While details would be negotiated, it would almost certainly involve increased border security funding; stricter confirmation of workers’ legal status; a path to citizenship for “dreamers” brought to the United States as children and other undocumented immigrants here a long time; reform to the guest worker program so people could come here temporarily to work then return to home countries; and increases in legal immigration.
That kind of a deal would give Republicans what they want, give Democrats what they want and reduce the incentives for people to come here illegally. The trouble is that Republicans know that if they agree to any kind of compromise, their base voters will revolt, just as they have before when immigration reform was attempted.
So we’re left with border photo ops, inflammatory TV ads and lurid tales of immigrant crime. That makes it harder for Republicans to join in a reform effort that involves anything other than building walls and cracking down, even if being “tough” doesn’t solve the problem.
Perhaps some Republicans wish that weren’t true, and yearn for a sensible debate that could end with a policy solution. If so, they can’t compete with visuals of their colleagues tromping around Texas and Arizona in desert colors to show how mad they are. If that’s all the base really wants, that’s all it’s going to get.