Female Reporter 1: Greg Abbott has declared the border crisis an invasion, and invokes Texas' constitutional right to self-defense.
Brooke Gladstone: Is the Texas governor's defiance of the fed's politics as usual or something more dire? From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger. America's view of our immigration problem is so focused on Washington and the border, we think that's where we'll find a quick fix.
Jonathan Blitzer: There's this fantasy of a silver bullet. If only the administration could just turn off immigration at the southern border, the problem would be solved, then obviously it doesn't work like that.
Brooke Gladstone: Plus, Chris Hayes of MSNBC makes the case for more and better coverage of candidate Trump.
Chris Hayes: I don't think we're ever going to go back to The Wall coverage of 2016, and that's a good thing. I just think the pendulum swung too far in the other direction.
Micah Loewinger: It's all coming up after this.
Micah Loewinger: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. Amid a surge of migrants at the southern border and a Supreme Court ruling that did not go in his favor, Texas Governor Greg Abbott last week offered the federal government the rhetorical middle finger.
Female Reporter 1: One of the strongest acts of defiance for a modern-day governor, Greg Abbott has declared the border crisis an invasion, and invoked Texas' constitutional right to self-defense.
Governor Greg Abbott: The authors of the Constitution knew there would be times when the federal government would not live up to its duty.
Brooke Gladstone: Greg Abbott.
Governor Greg Abbott: Texas has a right as a state to stop criminals from coming into our state.
Brooke Gladstone: This came after the Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration by lifting a lower court injunction that had prevented federal Border Patrol from clearing the real grand of deadly spools of razor wire put there by Abbott along with buoys to stop migrants attempting to swim to the US border by almost any means necessary. Here's Abbott on a conservative podcast.
Governor Greg Abbott: The only thing that we're not dealing is we're not shooting people who've come across the border because, of course, the Biden administration would charge us with murder.
Brooke Gladstone: Donald Trump approves.
Donald Trump: When I'm president, instead of trying to send Texas a restraining order, I will send them reinforcements.
Brooke Gladstone: And the heat of Republican governors.
Female Reporter 2: 25 out of our country's 26 Republican governors are publicly supporting Governor Abbott's defiance.
Brooke Gladstone: So what's all this about? In this week's Atlantic, staff writer Adam Serwer noted that Abbott's defiant statement mirrored the language found in the Texas Declaration of Secession written in 1861. Mostly about slavery, that document also claimed that the federal government had betrayed Texas by failing to protect the lives of Texans against "the Indian savages on our border, and more recently against the murderous forays of banditti from the neighboring territory of Mexico."
Here in the present, Abbott referred to the invasion clause of the Constitution that gave states sovereign power to mount troops in its self-defense against foreign aggression, plainly likening the surge of migrant families to the border to a military invasion.
Adam Serwer: That's exactly what he's doing. That language of engaging in war makes it clear that this is not about a figurative invasion.
Brooke Gladstone: Adam Serwer says that's not the kind of crisis the clause was intended to address.
Adam Serwer: It refers to an invading army or an invading military force. It is not referring to people trying to come to the United States to have a better life. It's meant to allow states to defend themselves from an actual military invasion until the federal government arrives. That doesn't mean that states can't do anything on their own with immigration, but they can't usurp the federal government's authority in that area.
For that reason, it should have been a pretty open-and-shut case. The Texas National Guard has been setting up razor wire at areas where migrants are likely to cross. In this particular instance, there was a woman and some children who were trying to cross the river and they drowned, and they were prevented from reaching them by the Border Patrol. Now the Border Patrol's legal obligation is to apprehend migrants and process them when they cross the border illegally. The federal government was arguing that Texas was unlawfully preventing them from enforcing federal law. This is not the first time this has happened.
Brooke Gladstone: The notion that the states have the right to defy the government in this regard expired long ago.
Adam Serwer: That was settled by the Civil War. The Union is perpetual, the federal government is sovereign. It's a very bizarre escalation. In rhetoric, that's basically neo-secessionist.
Brooke Gladstone: Meanwhile, there had been ominous ramblings about the looming constitutional crisis, but Serwer says it's too soon to tell.
Adam Serwer: This is an expression of lawlessness, honestly, that is rooted in this idea essential to the ideology of Donald Trump, which is that the only people who can legitimately wield power are Republicans or conservatives. Therefore, when a Democrat is in office, you can simply defy that authority. It's important to go back to that conservative narrative that Joe Biden is deliberately allowing the rise of migration to destroy the country that justifies extreme measures in response. How important it ultimately is and how much of it is a performance, we don't know. I think if it's not a performance, things could get dangerous, but I don't think we know that this is more than politics at the moment.
Brooke Gladstone: What may be most discouraging here is that four out of the nine High Court justices sided with Abbott's neo-secessionist declaration, perhaps encouraging all but one of the nation's Republican governors to jump in.
Adam Serwer: I think it was a mistake for the four justices to not send a unified message to Texas that they are not allowed to usurp the immigration powers of the federal government. The Supreme Court does not want to make itself irrelevant. They do not want to lose their power. If they send a message that their rulings are optional, especially if they send that message to their political allies, they're going to undermine their own authority.
Brooke Gladstone: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic. Jonathan Blitzer covers immigration for The New Yorker and is author of the new book, Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here. He's been watching the framing of the three humanitarian emergencies at the southern border in recent years onto the last three presidents in 2014, 2019, and 2021. He's observed that, tellingly, each of these crises is experienced by the American public as separate, unrelated events.
Jonathan Blitzer: That's right. There's this feeling of, "Okay. Well, that was Obama's crisis. That was Trump's crisis. This is Biden's crisis," as opposed to understanding that one story that's unspooling in the region and in the wider world.
Brooke Gladstone: I assume that the media have a big role in that misapprehension.
Jonathan Blitzer: It's understandable in a certain sense that the decisions made in Washington would be responsible for what we see at the US southern border, but the politics of this issue, which are so irresistible to cover, are so bruising that tends to dominate the conversations, sort of what the consequences will be for a particular administration? Does this sabotage other elements of their agenda? We gloss over what's led to the situation at the border in the first place.
Brooke Gladstone: What drops out of the narrative?
Jonathan Blitzer: The actual circumstances driving people to leave their homes in the first place and come to the US border, those dynamics have changed over the years. Right now, we're actually in a very interesting moment. We've seen crises in 2014, in 2019, in 2021. For the most part, each of those crises have had to do with Central American children and families coming to the border seeking asylum. Now, what we're seeing is an even expanded version of the problem, Venezuelans, principally, Cubans, Nicaraguans, people from all over South America and the world.
The over-fixation on the Washington dimension of the story mean that we tend to think it's just a function of whether or not the current administration is sending a message of permissiveness or harshness that's dictating people's decisions to move, when in fact people have been on the move for years before we start to see the situation play out at the border.
Brooke Gladstone: You say that the system hasn't been reformed or modified since 1990, and you said the border's a pressure point that the asylum system was never meant to sustain.
Jonathan Blitzer: This is a problem that the successive administrations and congresses are responsible for creating.
Brooke Gladstone: I think that's why you said out in your book to tell the story of the immigration crisis going back some time, but you find the story really begins in 1980.
Jonathan Blitzer: 1980 was a key moment for one reason above all, and that was the government passed the 1980 Refugee Act. In the past, the US government tried to provide protection to people fleeing persecution and upheaval and wars and all sorts of things across the world, but there had never been a systematic policy. For the first time, you had a concerted effort to give some sort of order to this broader ethos.
You have a split screen in the United States that's happening at that moment. You have, on the one hand, this very noble ethos that brings the United States into accord with international law and human rights in an immigration policy, but you also have in the early 1980s the Cold War raging at its peak. The United States government was simultaneously engaged in propping up right-wing regimes in Central America on the logic that these right-wing governments, even though they were perpetrating all sorts of atrocities in their countries, were nevertheless allies with the United States to help contain the spread of communism.
Brooke Gladstone: We're talking about the Salvadoran Civil War that was from '80 to '92. The Guatemalan Civil War lasted from the late '60s to the early '90s.
Jonathan Blitzer: Exactly. It should be said that these military governments were receiving not just diplomatic cover from the United States, but military aid, resources, advisors, and so US foreign policy essentially created a new demographic of immigrants coming to the United States seeking asylum and refuge.
Brooke Gladstone: You say the wars lasted longer because of US involvement.
Jonathan Blitzer: Exactly. In the case of El Salvador, civil war extended from 1980 to 1992. The US was propping up the Salvadoran military, which at the time was battling a group of leftist guerillas. For all of the resources that the US poured into that war effort, the Salvadoran government essentially fought these guerillas to a stalemate, and in the process, 75,000 people died.
Brooke Gladstone: Given, as you say, the split screen, the pressures of the Cold War on one side and the drive to get into accord with international norms on the other, how did the US asylum system work?
Jonathan Blitzer: The way it was supposed to work, according to the law, was that people's claims were supposed to be analyzed based only on the question of whether or not they were being persecuted based on their identities. Technically, now, a law existed that required the US to extend protection to people seeking relief at the border, but a large number of people who were showing up at the border seeking relief were fleeing repressive governments that were allies of the United States. You started to see, very, very high rejection rates of asylum claims from people coming from El Salvador and Guatemala. At a time when, on the whole, about 20% or so of asylum seekers had their applications granted, you had for Salvadorans and Guatemalans who were applying for asylum grant rates that were less than 2% and less than 1%.
Brooke Gladstone: This ultimately led to a court settlement where the US government had to admit that it had systematically discriminated for geopolitical reasons.
Jonathan Blitzer: Just one incident in a long historical pattern coloring the way in which immigration law and practice actually played out. The broader history, as you zoom out over time, is the fact that just as during the Cold War, you had the US government making all sorts of allowances for Cold War allies that perpetrated all sorts of atrocities. Fast forward a couple of decades, you have a similar phenomenon playing out where the US now is willing to make allowances for governments in the region that also perpetrate all kinds of atrocities, that are guilty of all sorts of corruption because they have vowed to help the US limit the spread of migration to the US southern border. There's a second iteration of that realpolitik.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's take Honduras today. It's oppressive. The government's openly corrupt.
Jonathan Blitzer: One way of summarizing what's gone on in Honduras in recent years is this. Later this month, the former president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, who was a US ally, over the course of two successive American administrations, is facing drug charges in a federal court in New York.
Brooke Gladstone: Ah, so we are not averting our eyes as much as we used to.
Jonathan Blitzer: Yes and no. It took more than a decade for this to come to pass. When he was president of Honduras, the corruption was transparent, the ways in which he repressed the broader population, it seems highly likely that he committed fraud in the 2017 election. All of these things were accommodated by the US government because he said all of the right things on the subject of fighting crime, drug interdiction, and immigration. It became very easy for regional leaders like this to play the United States because the US interests were so obvious.
Brooke Gladstone: When you say, "They said the right things," what kind of things do you mean?
Jonathan Blitzer: This is, I think, something that's very often overlooked. For the US to be able to deport people back to their homes, depends on an agreement with the government of those countries to receive the deportees. When those governments have been at odds with the United States, they can cause real chaos for the Americans. An example, until fairly recently, the Venezuelan government would not accept American deportation flights.
US authorities were in a real bind because they had large numbers of Venezuelans showing up at the southern border, the enforcement-minded agenda of US to apprehend them and deport them, but they couldn't deport them. There's all kinds of international cooperation that's out of public view that dictates how the US prosecutes its immigration agenda at the border. This goes back to why I think it's so important for media conversations to take into account these broader issues.
Brooke Gladstone: Right. President Clinton, you noted, was working on an immigration bill that drew a distinct line between legal immigrants seen as upstanding and illegal immigrants treated as unworthy. You think that debate in the '90s set up the framework for how we talk about immigration today?
Jonathan Blitzer: That was a real watershed moment in the 1990s. You had all kinds of converging political imperatives for a White House that saw its job as essentially needing to outflank Republicans in an election year.
Brooke Gladstone: That was the essence of a lot of the Clinton administration.
Jonathan Blitzer: There was an extremely harsh law passed in 1996 that basically made it much easier for the government to deport people and to strip them of their legal status. One of the characters in my book, actually, had a green card that he lost because he was convicted of a drug crime. This particular law was passed by a bunch of conservatives in Congress who themselves ended up getting so shocked by how many people were rounded up that they wound up appealing to immigration authorities and asking them to moderate the very law that they had passed.
Brooke Gladstone: Wow.
Jonathan Blitzer: There were these legal bars that the law created that said that if you had crossed the border unlawfully and/or if you had overstayed a visa, or if at any point your legal status had lapsed, you would be barred from the United States for either 5 or 10 years. Now, we accept as part of the landscape, the fact that there are 11 plus million undocumented people living in the United States. The size of that population was, in large part, created by this law in 1996 that trapped people in this country and denied them avenues to regularize their legal status. The size of the undocumented population, decades later, reflects the consequences of that law in the mid-1990s.
Brooke Gladstone: Then, in 2015, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions released the immigration handbook for the new Republican majority, and you say that was a sea change in the GOP's immigration policy.
Jonathan Blitzer: Now, it seems so fateful. At the time, it seemed like a very strange blip. You basically had, in 2012, Obama's re-election. He beats Mitt Romney for president. The common wisdom was that Romney's greatest liability, the real reason he lost was that he'd used issues like immigration way too conservatively and alienated broad segments of the electorate.
While that was the broad consensus following the 2012 election, you had hardliners like Jeff Sessions in Congress, who actually took the exact opposite lesson. Sessions' read on the situation was, "We lost in 2012 because we were not harsh enough that there was a real constituency out there who would love to see us crack down even more on immigration." For the most part, sessions was in the political wilderness until the arrival of Donald Trump who recognized the potential to weaponize the immigration issue, to whip up fear, and to ride that to the White House.
Michael Lowinger: Coming up, the second half of Brooke's conversation with Jonathan Blitzer.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media.