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Margin Of Error

The Crisis Keeps Migrating

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO - FEBRUARY 06: Migrants cross the border to USA through Gate 36 and to be received by elements of the Border Patrol and the Texas National Guard for the processing of their request to migrate, captured from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on February 06, 2024.
Christian Torres/Anadolu via Getty Images

Welcome to Margin of Error, a politics column from Tom Scocca, editor of the Indignity newsletter, examining the apocalyptic politics and coverage of Campaign 2024.

One of the dumbest and most dangerous ideas in American politics is the notion that Donald Trump is in any sense a straight shooter—that people respond to him because he tells blunt truths that conventional politicians are afraid to utter. This is only accurate in the narrow sense that Trump, whose entire career depends on lying, has no patience for other people's dissembling if it doesn't do him any good personally. When Trump blows up the usual political nonsense, that is, he does it because it was getting in the way of his own nonsense.

On Sunday, the White House, Senate Democrats, and Senate Republicans announced that they had reached a comprehensive deal on border policy and foreign aid—combining border restrictions, new immigration processing policies, and funding for Israel and Ukraine into a single, bipartisan measure. By Tuesday, Joe Biden was giving a live address to lament the fact that the deal was dead. "Why?" Biden said. "A simple reason: Donald Trump … He’d rather weaponize this issue than actually solve it." 

The president's account managed to be both true and fantastical. It was true in that Trump was absolutely, directly responsible for killing the project. "A Border Deal now would be another Gift to the Radical Left Democrats," Trump had posted on Truth Social while the Senate was still negotiating. "They need it politically, but don’t care about our Border." The House Republicans immediately followed his lead; once the bill took shape, it was easy enough for Trump to break the Senate Republicans, too. 

The fantastical part, though, was Biden's expressed belief that, if not for Trump's interference, the border could have been an "issue" that lies within his power to "solve." His claim that Trump is "weaponizing" the border presumed that the border was ever anything other than a weapon, or that it ever could be. From the moment Trump entered the presidential race in 2015, he has been clear on that point: The problem at the border is whatever makes the Democrats look bad. The border is unstoppable caravans, rampaging MS-13 members, fentanyl, terrorists, fraudulent Biden voters. It is where the mythic fears of his supporters pile up and rise into a terrifying wave, a wave that only Donald Trump can hold back. 

What was a bipartisan bargain supposed to do about that? On Tuesday, Biden declared that losing the Senate deal would deprive the United States of a "new, efficient, and fair process for the government to consider an asylum claim for those arriving at the border." Tuesday night, Fox News featured Curtis Sliwa's Guardian Angels jumping a man in Times Square on live TV, as Sliwa declared that the target was a Venezuelan migrant and a shoplifter. The milling red satin jackets obscured any details, leaving Sean Hannity, at the other end of the feed, to burble about the spectacle of "Joe Biden's unvetted illegals in New York." 

Later, according to the Associated Press, the NYPD said the person in Times Square had been "a New Yorker from the Bronx." But Hannity's version of reality didn't need to be cross-checked against anyone's citizenship or residency papers. The Trump border is, above all, a moving target. When he was president, this meant patriotic Americans were willing to give away as much as two miles of the land that Davy Crockett died for, retreating north from the actual boundary of the Rio Grande if that's what it took to find usable land for a symbolic wall. 

Trump does this because it works. The border has been his winning issue, allowing him to push the consensus on immigration to the point where Stephen Miller's white nationalism is a respectably mainstream point of view. When Biden got up to plead for the deal, he was pleading for a package of restrictions that would have been unthinkable for Democrats to offer up in 2016. The Wall Street Journal supported the Senate deal, he complained. The Border Patrol union endorsed it. The Democrats were trying to surrender, and Trump wouldn't even let them. 

The political lesson of this would seem to be obvious. But Democrats can't learn it. They are pinned between their own guilty sense that good government does require someone to do something about our profoundly dysfunctional immigration system, and the message from Fox News that the Silent Majority will not tolerate a foreign invasion. Surely there must be a way to show that they, too, care about our borders, through their commitment to effective policy reforms. 

The result is that the border crisis, chimerical as its details or solutions may be, is a solid, uncontested political fact. New York Mayor Eric Adams dons a bulletproof vest ("with a Fendi scarf tucked underneath it") to go on a raid against migrants, a big-city Democratic mayor in action. The New York Times puts it into headlines, with no qualification or attribution: "Crisis on Border"..."Migrant Crisis." 

According to Thursday morning's Times, the Migrant Crisis was what was dragging down Democrats' hopes of winning this month's special election for the House seat from which George Santos was expelled. The Democrat in the race, former Representative Tom Suozzi, is in danger of losing to Mazi Melesa Pilip, a member of the Nassau County Legislature who billed herself an Israeli paratrooper and then had to concede she didn't mean the kind of paratrooper who parachuted out of airplanes

"[A] wave of suburban discontent," the Times reported, "fueled by the crush of migrants arriving at the southern border and in New York City has helped transform a potential Democratic pickup into a statistical dead heat." A 62-year-old retired teacher from Great Neck told the Times, "It's scary, the open borders." 

Where does the border touch the New York suburbs? Rather than ask the question, Suozzi was out on the campaign trail, telling voters, "I'm tougher than you'll ever be." But his idea of how to show his toughness was to point to the failing bipartisan bill. He couldn't be tough on the border, because Donald Trump wouldn't let him. 

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