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Greg Abbott: Scrooge.

Our immigration problem calls for generosity, not cruelty.
December 27, 2022
Greg Abbott: Scrooge.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

On Christmas Eve in Washington, D.C. the temperature plunged to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest on record. In our neighborhood, people were exchanging hints on the Nextdoor app about opening taps to drip (it prevents pipes from freezing) and avoiding black ice on roads. Some were admonishing their neighbors for leaving dogs outside too long. “It’s friggin’ 15 degrees!”

And yet, the governor of Texas nonetheless decided to dump another 130 men, women, and children—some wearing just t-shirts—on the doorstep of Vice President Kamala Harris’s official residence. Three buses arrived between 8 and 10 p.m., and, thanks to the work of Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, the dazed and confused migrants were offered blankets and conveyed to local churches. Several restaurants donated food. So the immigrants were okay. But without that intervention, we must assume that the bus drivers were under instructions to leave them there, in a residential neighborhood, on a frigid night, wearing only light clothing, not speaking the language, and having no idea where they were.

This brings to 8,700 the number of immigrants Gov. Greg Abbott has shipped to Washington this year. Another 6,500 have been bused to New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

It isn’t that Abbott didn’t anticipate the coming weather. In a December 20 letter to President Biden, he wrote:

With cold temperatures gripping Texas, your inaction to secure the southern border is putting the lives of migrants at risk, particularly in the City of El Paso. With thousands of men, women, and children illegally crossing into Texas every day, and with the expectation that those numbers will only increase if Title 42 expulsions end, the state is overburdened as we respond to this disaster caused by you and your administration. Your policies will leave many people in the bitter, dangerous cold as a polar vortex moves into Texas.

Help us understand the reasoning here. Is the problem that Biden has caused human suffering by letting people be exposed to freezing temperatures? In that case, how is the solution to move people to another freezing jurisdiction and dump them on the sidewalk?

When, in a similar attention-seeking stunt, Gov. Ron DeSantis flew a planeload of asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard, it was at least in September. To treat human beings as props when there’s a real danger of exposure increases the cruelty quotient. The two Republican governors are in a heartlessness duel. Perhaps the next step will be to shoot would-be migrants in the legs as Trump demanded in 2019.

Some Republicans love this performative malice. DeSantis got standing ovations after the Martha’s Vineyard gambit, with Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall asking, “How I could get a ticket to drive one of those buses from the border to the Delaware beach?” They know it appeals to a swath of GOP primary voters who dine on a steady diet of hysteria about the border.

Yes, this country is being swamped by would-be immigrants, and a mature polity would address the problem with sensible reforms. But that’s not what the governors of Florida and Texas are demanding. They and their right-wing media claque are saying that immigrants are clamoring for admission to the United States only because President Biden has an “open borders” policy. Here’s a typical story from Fox News: “Biden’s dangerous open border policies are record-breaking in all the wrong ways. Illegal immigrants, possible terrorists and deadly drugs mark Biden’s open border policies.” GOP politicians proclaim almost daily that Biden has created an “open border.”

They repeat this mantra even though it flatly contradicts another of their favorite talking points, namely that the border patrol has experienced record numbers of encounters with would-be crossers. The CPB reports that agents had 2.2 million encounters with illegal border crossers in fiscal year 2022—a new record. (Many are repeat crossers.) If the border were truly open, the border patrol would not be apprehending anyone, right? They’d be standing aside and waving them on in.

In fact, the constant GOP refrain about the border being “open” may actually be aggravating the problem by disseminating the impression around the globe that it’s worth making the attempt to get into the United States.

Here is the complicated reality. It is not Biden’s fault that so many people want to come to the United States. There was a big jump in border encounters under the Trump administration as well (from 310,531 in fiscal year 2017 to 859,501 in fiscal year 2019—the numbers plunged temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic). People want to come here because 1) so many nations around the globe are hellish and a number of those are within walking distance; 2) this is a place where people with a good work ethic can get ahead and enjoy the blessings of liberty; 3) our immigration laws and rules are confusing.

Those who object that immigrants are “breaking into our country” as a burglar breaks into a home are dead wrong. The vast majority of would-be entrants are not sneaking past sentries in the desert or wading through the Rio Grande (not that such acts are equivalent to burglary either). Most immigrants are attempting to come through international points of entry and ask for asylum. This is permitted under a law Congress passed in 1980, providing that people may seek asylum when they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

The law was designed for people like the Uighurs in China, the Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, democrats in Cuba, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Baha’i in Iran, and others. Among those who have benefited from asylum in the United States are Gloria Estefan, Sergey Brin, Hannah Arendt, Salvador Dalí, and Mikhail Barishnikov. The United States separately admits refugees from wars and natural disasters.

One reason our law inadvertently creates a crush at the border is the requirement that those seeking asylum be physically present in the United States. Also, word is out around the world that you can claim fear of persecution and at least get a hearing (though 75 percent of claims are rejected, which may be less well understood). So many have attempted to take advantage of this avenue that the backlog of cases now stands at 1.29 million. Perhaps one way to handle the hordes of people hoping to gain admittance is to clarify the asylum criteria. The Biden administration is reportedly considering a rule that would require would-be asylum seekers to ask for asylum in the first country they enter. This would, in theory, screen out those who are actually economic migrants from those who are truly fleeing out of fear. Another possible reform is to permit people to make an asylum claim at the U.S. embassy in their countries.

Here’s another solution to the immigration problem—welcome more legal immigrants! Opponents of immigration frequently object that policy should be aimed at what’s best for this country, not what’s in the interests of millions of unhappy people around the globe. Things are tough out there, sure, but we can’t be the dumping ground for the world’s problems!

True, but more immigration is in our national interest. Even aside from the injection of vitality that immigrants always provide, we are suffering from a serious labor shortage. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell estimates that “The combination of a plunge in net immigration and a surge in deaths during the pandemic probably accounts for about one and a half million missing workers.” And the lack of those employees is driving up wages, which is contributing to our inflation problem. The unemployment rate stands at 3.7 percent, a 50-year low. For every job seeker, there are 1.7 job openings. The worker shortages are particularly acute in construction, farming, health care, and hospitality. The owner of a home health care company, Mariama Lowe, told the Washington Post that before the immigration restrictions and the pandemic she employed 100 nurses and personal care aides, most of them immigrants. Now, she is down to 27. She isn’t sure how long she can hold out.

We’re in a very difficult position, because there is nobody to hire anymore. Tech companies can go recruit from anywhere; they have all of these avenues available to them. But a home health agency like me? I don’t have that opportunity. I just have to go with whoever’s here and whoever’s available. And right now, it’s not a lot.

The wait for green cards, even for those who’ve been fully vetted, can be insanely long because our needlessly complicated law imposes caps by country of origin. Immigrants from India and China, for example, can wait their entire working lives.

We are starved for workers. Americans are paying more for food, housing, and other commodities and services due to the severe labor shortage. We have backlogs of already-vetted immigrants, asylum-seekers with credible claims, and refugees who would gratefully (dare I say tearfully) accept jobs and lives in this country if we could only get out of our own way.

But our politics is poisoned by the demagogues who speak of immigrants as “invaders” and warn of catastrophe if we don’t close our border. Not only are they deceiving their audience, they are coarsening it by inviting them to enjoy the suffering of others. In contrast to the finest traditions of this country, which at its best has been a haven for the persecuted and a friend to the oppressed, they are treating immigrants as enemies. No—worse. Enemies would be entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, which would prohibit what Greg Abbott did on Christmas Eve.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].