Analysis: The Texas-Mexico frontier still tops the news — and state politics

Gov. Greg Abbott spoke at an October press conference in Mission with nine other governors regarding the southern border. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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Undocumented immigrants haven’t killed 72,808 Texans during the last two years, like COVID-19 did through Dec. 2. Immigrants haven’t brought that kind of danger to the state in the last 20 years, for that matter.

But fear of an insecure border consistently outweighs the pandemic as a matter of concern in Texas. That persistent worry over immigration is strongest among the state’s Republicans. It overshadows other issues — winter blackouts and electric grid failures, debates over election fraud and ballot access, handgun regulation, abortion — even when those things top the news.

As we end a year of record-setting numbers of people trying to cross from Mexico into Texas, Republican candidates — some of them officeholders — have a potent political issue that plays their way.

Republican voters have chosen immigration and border security as the top issue facing the country for more than a decade.

This year’s crush of people trying to enter the U.S. has focused attention, once again, on immigration issues. A Democrat occupies the White House, giving a Republican state government a built-in political foil. The number of undocumented immigrants in detention in Texas has increased by more than 50% since Joe Biden took office. And a somewhat unexpected budget surplus has allowed the state to throw nearly $3 billion at the problem, in the form of barriers (whether those are walls, cars or shipping containers), state police, and National Guard soldiers and assets.

That focus on the border comes at the opening of the 2022 election cycle. Candidates are filing for office, raising money, focusing in on the issues they will emphasize and putting their campaign materials together.

The timing, from a political point of view, is fortuitous.

As Democrats are looking hard at the electric grid failures during a winter storm that caused nearly statewide blackouts last February, Republicans are looking to the border. Attention is high, their voters care about it, the GOP is making a play for conservative Latino voters in the state’s border counties, and the party’s candidates are already heaping blame for border and immigration problems on the Democrat in the White House.

The party primaries come quickly — March 1, if they’re not pushed by court challenges to the state’s new political maps. And it wouldn’t be surprising, as we come out of the holiday break in January, to see video of people trying to cross the border in Republican candidates’ campaign spots, and video of snow and dark cities in Democrats’ commercials.

At least they’d be talking about issues.

By the time the general election season heats up next fall, winter will be behind us, and unless there’s a repeat of this year’s freeze, the political conversation will have moved on.

The border will still be there, and if recent decades are the map, it will still be on voters’ minds. Within the last week, the Biden administration announced it had renegotiated the “remain in Mexico” program the president campaigned against. That Trump-era program keeps migrants seeking asylum in this country in Mexico while their status is being considered. Biden ended it, but lost legal challenges. Now, it’s back in place, bringing attention once again to issues of strong importance to conservative voters.

Other issues are important, too, but few are as persistent as border security and immigration. Democrats running for office in 2022 face obvious headwinds like GOP-drawn redistricting maps and the president’s souring approval numbers.

Add immigration to those political problems. While Democrats are waiting for bad weather or some other unexpected news to help them upset the Republicans in 2022, the officials in power already have one sure thing to talk about — and it’s one that plays to their strengths.

The snow might have melted, but the border will still be there.

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