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‘Every Single County Is Now a Border County’
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‘Every Single County Is Now a Border County’

Republicans look to dysfunction at the U.S.-Mexico border to animate their base.

Immigrants seeking asylum in the United States are processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing into Arizona from Mexico. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Republicans have hammered Democrats on economic issues as they push to retake the House and Senate. Yet if the GOP succeeds, it’ll be in part because of another issue that hasn’t driven as much coverage this year: immigration.

Warnings about unchecked illegal immigration have been a core part of Republican base messaging for years. But this cycle the issue has become more powerful as President Joe Biden presides over record-shattering levels of border crossings and already backlogged immigration courts all but collapse under the strain

Only 6 percent of voters rank immigration as “the most important problem facing the country today,” according to Gallup’s latest trend polling. But in a Pew survey last month, no policy area favored Republicans more heavily: Among the 54 percent of registered voters polled who see immigration as “very important” to their vote, 57 percent said they would vote today for the Republican in their district. Just 28 percent prefer the Democrat.

Think of immigration as the GOP’s answer to the Democrats’ advantage on abortion. The same Gallup “most important problem” survey put abortion at 4 percent. And of the 56 percent of registered voters in the Pew survey who ranked abortion “very important,” likely Democratic voters outnumbered likely Republican supporters 55 percent to 29 percent.

In Arizona, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has charged out to a large lead over Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs while maintaining an uncompromisingly hardline stance on many issues, including illegal immigration.

“We’re going to take back control from the federal government of our border. They have ceded control to the worst people,” Lake told ABC News earlier this month. “We’re going to work around them. We’re going to put people in key areas of the border and we’re going to stop people from coming across.”

Lake has argued that border crossings into Arizona amount to a foreign invasion and has called for border states to circumvent the federal government and create their own border security forces. To that end, the candidate has even said that she would issue a “declaration of invasion” on her first day in office—citing Article 1, section 10 of the Constitution, which forbids states from entering such interstate compacts without the consent of Congress “unless actually invaded.” Some legal experts have said that courts would quickly strike down such efforts, and Lake herself has acknowledged lawsuits would quickly emerge.

Even far from the border, the issue has some salience. Some swing-state Republicans have made illegal immigration part of their messaging on topics like the economy and crime. In North Carolina, Rep. Ted Budd, the GOP candidate for Senate, mentions immigration and the border in nearly every stump speech. “Every single county in North Carolina is now a border county because of Biden’s policies,” he said in debate earlier this month. 

In painting a picture of broader malaise exacerbated by an overrun border, Republican candidates emphasize not only the raw number of migrants themselves arriving but also the way cartels exploit the porous border for drug smuggling and human trafficking. Fentanyl seizures shot up by 480 percent in 2020, according to Mexican authorities. U.S. authorities seized 14,699 pounds of the drug in fiscal year 2022, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol—31 percent more than the previous year.

Most of the fentanyl seized by authorities is not taken from asylum seekers or those seeking to cross illegally between checkpoints—but rather from legal travelers at border checkpoints

Current border policies give migrants a “free pass to break our laws, traffic drugs into our communities, contribute to rising crime, and take jobs,” says the campaign website of Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance. If the GOP wins majorities in both chambers of Congress come November, Vance said he believes the party should force Biden to put money toward funding the border wall in exchange for keeping the government funded. 

Vance’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan, has agreed with Vance in a recent debate that the border is “not secure. We have a lot of work to do.” He’s adopted a more centrist stance, voicing support for immigration reform and that he believes America has been “enriched by immigrants.”“While the economy remains the dominant issue in battleground races across the country, crime is also a top issue,” Republican strategist Chris Pack told The Dispatch. “Democrats have completely dismissed the crisis at our southern border, and it is a part of the reason why they are viewed as soft on crime.”

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.