US Republicans try to outdo each other with tough border rhetoric ahead of election
WASHINGTON, Feb 14 (Reuters) – Over the past year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has deployed thousands of National Guard troops to the U.S. southern border, begun building a new border fence and arrested migrants for allegedly trespassing on private property.
The two-term Republican governor took the lead in opposing Democratic President Joe Biden’s immigration reforms, earning him the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.
But as Abbott runs for a third term, conservative candidates challenging him in a Republican nominating contest on March 1 say he’s still not tough enough on illegal immigration.
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Allen West, a former Republican U.S. congressman, said Texas should arrest and deport immigrants who enter the U.S. illegally — something states don’t have the power to do — if the federal government refuses to to act. The “porous border” shows how Abbott’s approach has failed, West claims.
Don Huffines, a businessman and former state senator, wants to close Texas’s bridges with Mexico to most inbound traffic and deploy the state’s entire National Guard to the border.
Abbott’s spokeswoman Renae Eze dismissed criticism of the governor’s immigration record, saying Texas was forced to intervene after Biden “abdicated” his responsibilities to protect the border.
With opinion polls showing Abbott with a sizable lead over West and Huffines, he will likely face the most competitive gubernatorial primary of his career. The attacks from his right flank show how even the staunchest Republican border hawks are under pressure to get tougher on the issue as the election nears.
Trump rewrote the party’s immigration playbook after successfully campaigning in 2016 on building a border wall and blocking the entry of refugees, often employing nativist language to describe his goals. The current election cycle shows that Trump’s influence persists even after losing the presidency in 2020 – and that some candidates are going further.
“No issue captures the attention of Republicans like immigration and border security does,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. Republican primary voters have a “seemingly unlimited appetite” for tough immigration measures, Henson added.
CALLS FOR MORE ACTION
According to an October 2021 University of Texas poll, some 68% of Texas Republicans say border security or immigration are the top issues facing the state. And while Republicans largely approve of Abbott’s immigration policies, polls show, polls suggest they want even more action.
The tougher border proposals pushed by Abbott’s challengers show how Republican candidates are trying to outdo each other on an issue that remains a powerful galvanizing force for the party’s core voters, despite the economic issues and tensions around COVID policies that dominate the headlines.
And for Republicans in competitive primaries, a tough stance on immigration is a way to differentiate themselves without risking voter backlash, said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist.
Republicans across the country have made immigration a top priority ahead of the Nov. 8 congressional election, where Democrats risk losing control of Congress, thwarting Biden’s legislative agenda.
Candidates can capitalize on voter outrage over record attempts to cross borders and the cost of providing public services to migrants, a message amplified by popular conservative outlets nationwide like Fox News.
Liberal advocacy groups say Republicans demonize migrants who come to the United States for refuge, misrepresent the economic effects of immigration and try to capitalize on xenophobic fears about the fate of the country’s white majority.
“EVERY STATE IS A BORDER STATE”
As Republican candidates strive to improve their immigration credentials, some are turning to Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s restrictive immigration agenda.
Miller is officially advising Republican hedge fund CEO David McCormick in his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania and talking informally with other candidates, he told Reuters.
McCormick traveled last week to the town of Yuma, Arizona, near the Mexican border, some 3,900 km from Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg. “Every state is a border state when Joe Biden and his administration encourage illegal immigration,” he said in a written statement.
In Arizona, Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed Republican frontrunner for governor, agrees with the Texas border crackdown but has vowed to go further.
Lake, a former Fox News anchor, wants to forge an alliance between like-minded states to illegally deport immigrants to the United States, which is a federal responsibility.
Some Republican primary candidates are even targeting legal immigration, once a major part of the party’s pro-business stance.
“We need a full immigration moratorium,” said Joe Kent, a Trump-backed Army veteran who is running in a Washington state primary against U.S. Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler. Kent says too many tech jobs are filled by H-1B visa holders, a skilled worker program whose recipients are overwhelmingly Indian.
It remains to be seen whether enough voters will back the hardliners. Lake narrowly leads the field of Republican candidates for governor of Arizona. McCormick entered the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania about a month ago and public polls have yet to gauge his position.
Analysts say Washington’s voting system, where candidates from all parties appear together on the primary ballot and the top two vote winners qualify for the overall, will favor moderates like Herrera Beutler.
Nonetheless, NumbersUSA, a hawkish advocacy group that pushes for lower immigration levels, said it received more responses than usual to an election-year survey it is conducting of candidates for assess them on their hardline stances on immigration — suggesting the candidates are eager to establish their Trump-style credentials.
“A few years ago it was, ‘Legal immigration is good, illegal immigration is bad.’ That was the Republican mantra,” deputy director Chris Chmielenski said. “You’re starting to see less of that.”
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Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco; Editing by Ross Colvin and Rosalba O’Brien
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