Sep 8, 2022

The situation on the border.

The situation on the border.
Photo by Greg Bulla / Unsplash

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is now bussing migrants to New York, D.C., and Chicago.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

What's happening on the southern border, and an under the radar story on a forthcoming bill in the Senate.

The Mexican-American border, with some construction still ongoing on the American side.
Photo by Greg Bulla / Unsplash


We are going to be sharing a transcript of my conversation with Hyrum Lewis, the author of a book on the "myth" of left and right politics. It was a fascinating conversation about politics, polarization, and how we make up tribes to justify our positions. Keep an eye out for it!

Quick hits.

  1. The second suspect in a mass stabbing that killed 10 people in an indigenous community in Canada has died after being taken into custody by police and going into “medical distress.” (The death)
  2. Police in Memphis arrested a 19-year-old suspect after four people were killed and three were wounded by a man who drove around the city shooting people.  (The shooting)
  3. Shelling has resumed near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine and residents were ordered to evacuate. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kyiv today for an unannounced visit as a show of support. (The visit)
  4. A Michigan judge struck down the state's 1931 ban on most abortion procedures, saying it violated the state constitution. (The ruling)
  5. In Texas, a judge ruled that an employer mandate to provide coverage for an HIV prevention drug violated religious freedom. (The ruling)

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Today's topic.

The southern border. Over the last few months, a record number of migrant encounters at the southern border and a controversial new policy of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s has set off a wave of commentary about our immigration system.

Currently, there are 330 million people in the United States. 47 million of them were born elsewhere, or about one in seven, and an estimated 11.4 million are unauthorized immigrants.

In July, the Border Patrol reported 181,552 arrests, a 5.6% drop from the 192,148 reported in June. With less than a month to go in fiscal year 2022 (which ends this month), the agency expects to break 2 million arrests in a single year for the first time ever. The pandemic has driven a surge in desire to come to the U.S., with many Latin American economies being hit hard as demand for low-wage jobs most often filled by migrants surges in the U.S.

At the same time, smugglers have taken to WhatsApp and Facebook to tell migrants that President Biden's immigration policies are more lenient, and that some people who reach the U.S. are allowed to stay. The numbers are also being juiced by Title 42, according to border agents. The U.S. policy, implemented under Trump, was meant to quickly deter migration by sending asylum seekers back to Mexico while they await a trial (Biden tried to end the policy, but a federal judge blocked him).

Border patrol agents estimate one in four migrants has tried to re-enter the U.S. in the last 12 months, because — under Title 42 — they won't face prison for repeated entries as they would under normal U.S. immigration law, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In response to the increased number of migrant apprehensions, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has started bussing migrants from Texas to New York City, Washington D.C., and Chicago. New York City officials say intake centers have received more than 4,000 migrants since late May. Abbott has sent another 7,000 migrants to Washington D.C. and said that the move is both to relieve overwhelmed border communities and draw attention to the crisis at the border, which he says is being ignored by politicians in Washington D.C. He also notes that New York City, Washington D.C. and Chicago are "sanctuary" cities where illegal immigrants are supposed to be welcomed.

In response, New York City Mayor Eric Adams sent a delegation to Texas this week to meet with border patrol officials.

"Adams talked the talk about being a sanctuary city — welcoming illegal immigrants into the Big Apple with warm hospitality. Talk is cheap. When pressed into fulfilling such ill-considered policies, he wants to condemn anyone who is pressing him to walk the walk," Abbott said in a New York Post op-ed.

At the same time, migrant deaths are increasing in the southwestern United States. In Eagle Pass, Texas, officials say migrants are drowning every day trying to cross the Rio Grande. Last week, nine migrants died and 37 were rescued in Eagle Pass in a single day after flooding drove the river’s water levels up. 715 migrants died in the desert in 2021 in an area of southern Texas dubbed "Death Valley." In July, 53 migrants were found dead inside an overheated tractor-trailer in one of the largest mass migrant victim events in U.S. history.

The Biden administration has pointed to high levels of apprehensions as proof that the border is not as porous as many Republicans claim. However, over one million of those migrants have been released into the U.S. interior while awaiting hearings during Biden’s term. Distinct from the hundreds of thousands who have crossed undetected, those migrants are hoping to win asylum claims and legally stay in the U.S.

Interestingly, unlike migrants of the past few decades, it's not overwhelmingly Mexicans and migrants from the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who are crossing the southern border. Though those four countries continue to account for the largest proportion of migrants, people from countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are crossing in increasingly high numbers as they flee from dire economic conditions and authoritarian leaders. Migrants from countries besides Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala account for 40% of total apprehensions this fiscal year.

In a moment, we're going to explore some commentary about the southern border, with a focus on the current state of things and Abbott's decision to begin bussing migrants to other cities.

We’ve covered immigration repeatedly in Tangle. You can find our previous issues here.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right blame Biden's rhetoric and lenient policies for the crisis on the border.
  • Some praise Abbott's move to bus migrants to other cities, saying he has every right to demand help in dealing with migrants.
  • Others say Biden's policies are actually crueler than Abbott's, because they have created a humanitarian crisis.

The New York Post editorial board said Biden's "open border" is "attracting a whole new category of immigrant."

"Much of the 'other nations' group comes from Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua — but Haiti and even Ukraine contribute, too," the board said. "Vice President Kamala Harris’ supposed mission of addressing the 'root causes' of Northern Triangle migration looks even more pathetic, and not just because she’s barely pretended to try: The rush from Cuba, etc., would drown out any progress (if she’d actually made any). This is a clear result of President Joe Biden’s decision to do away with everything his predecessor (and even President Barack Obama) had done to stop the tide: The Border Patrol now basically waves every comer in, treats nearly all as 'asylum seekers' — and sends them on their way into the interior, requesting only that they check in from their final destinations.

"It’s 'racist,' Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot grandstands, for Texas to bus illegal migrants to her city," the board also noted. "Not that they don’t want them! she quickly clarifies. 'Chicago welcomes hundreds of migrants every year to our city and provides much-needed assistance.' So what’s racist about it? Could it be that Chicago, no matter how welcoming, finds itself overwhelmed by aid seekers encouraged by President Biden’s open border policy? Which is exactly Gov. Greg Abbott’s point. Texas is busing a small fraction of the thousands of illegal migrants his state has to deal with every day. He’s giving Democratic mayors far from the border just a taste of the financial burden and responsibility he faces because of federal indifference."

In Newsweek, Jonathan Tobin said Democrats are discovering "only the federal government" can solve the border crisis.

"Liberals in deep blue cities far removed from America's southern border have been lecturing Republicans for years about the ideals of Emma Lazarus' poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' The Trump administration and politicians in states like Texas, overwhelmed with the problems associated with illegal immigration, were blasted as hard-hearted xenophobes," Tobin said. "There's no sign that politicians on the Left are rethinking their support for amnesty and the opening of the border, but the mayors of New York City and Washington D.C. have discovered that these ideological chickens have finally come home to roost.

"The result is a 'humanitarian crisis' that is making it harder for Northeast liberal elites to pretend that only right-wing hatemongers worry about illegal immigration. While New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been spouting rhetoric about welcoming immigrants, he's also acting as if his city has been the victim of a dirty trick. He called Abbott's tactic "unimaginable" and "horrific." He's been begging the federal government to help him address a problem that is overwhelming a social welfare system already dealing with an out-of-control homelessness problem," Tobin said. "The federal government should help cities cope with bused-in migrants, but not by sending them money. Instead, Biden should reverse his immigration policies and return to his predecessor's policy of sealing the border, including resuming work on the wall Trump wanted to build."

In Unherd, Batya Ungar-Sargon said Biden has gone as far as a president can go without actually abolishing our borders.

"Where did millions of migrants get the idea that Biden had invited them in? From Biden himself, naturally. During the 2020 primary debates, then-candidate Biden said that migrants illegally crossing the border should not be detained, and like nearly every other candidate on the debate stage, he said he would decriminalise illegal border crossing. Millions of migrants were listening, along with the human traffickers who extort, torture, rape and kill them," she wrote. "And Biden has more or less followed through as President. From Day One, he stopped construction of a border wall with Mexico, ended President Trump’s travel ban restricting travel from 14 countries, and dramatically reduced deportations — from more than 267,000 in 2019 to just 59,000 in 2021.

"The Biden administration also vowed to end Title 42, a Trump-era restriction that allowed migrants to be turned away due to the pandemic, though a federal judge in Louisiana has for now blocked Biden’s attempts to end the policy," Ungar-Sargon said. "Of course, many of these progressives also have compassion for migrants crossing the border in search of a better life. I do, too. It’s impossible not to feel for people seeking a better life for their children. But what about America’s own struggling workers? Why no compassion for them? Like so much of what passes for political debate in America in 2022, the fight between Governor Abbott and Mayors Adams and Bowser is less about values and more about interests. Big-city Democrats want to flatter the moral vanity of their elite base by rhetorically supporting illegal immigration, but only so long as border states such as Texas and Arizona are the ones who foot the bill."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left criticize Abbott's policy as cruel and inhumane.
  • Some call out the Biden administration, but maintain that there is no "invasion" or border being overrun, given net immigration is at historic lows.
  • Others say Republicans are doing little or nothing to address the actual issue.

The Chicago Tribune editorial board called Gov. Abbott's actions cruel, writing about the arrival of 60 migrants at Union Station earlier this week.

"Make no mistake, this was an act of political theater and unconscionable immaturity, rendered immoral by the unpaid cast — migrants looking for a better life for their families," the board wrote. "And, of course, Lightfoot knew how to play her assigned role as a whole slew of people who opposed Abbott’s actions rushed to Union Station to speak their minds to waiting cameras, to pen their stories of outrage and defiance. They knew that the idea of one state busing migrants hundreds of miles to another state, without offering meaningful notice to ensure the provision of services, is not exactly a functional or humane way to handle the issue of immigration.

"But they also knew that the inflamed rhetoric of how Chicago is ready to welcome anyone who arrives at the border, even via a bus from Texas, was only playing into the hands of Abbott and his many supporters in both Texas and Washington. In essence, what we ended up with Wednesday night was a dysfunctional war of words between Democrats and Republicans, a fight between a red state and a blue city, each offering up catnip for its own partisans," the board said. "Meanwhile, stuck in the middle of all of this were surely decent, worried, scared families, unsure of their fate and how and where they were going to land."

The Washington Post editorial board said we need immigrants, not overheated rhetoric.

"Net immigration in the United States — the number of all foreign arrivals, including illegal ones, minus the number of departures — has been on a downward slope for five years, partly but not only because of the pandemic. As the Economist noted recently, migrants added just 247,000 people to the U.S. population in the year that ended in July 2021, the smallest increase in three decades and an amount equal to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the country’s population," the board said. "The Trump administration, having launched an assault on legal as well as illegal immigration, drove down the number of entries through red tape even before covid-19’s arrival. Despite the fact that most apprehended migrants are sent back to Mexico under a public health edict the Trump administration imposed, Republicans predictably weaponize the surge of migrants at the border, using it to scare Americans and score political points.

"The fact that net immigration is tumbling and contributing to labor shortages — and thereby also to inflation, by helping to drive up wages — is lost in the tsunami of political rhetoric about an 'invasion,'" the board said. "Despite its contradictory messaging, the Biden administration has taken measured steps to funnel migrants legally into seasonal nonagricultural jobs in sectors where they are desperately needed. This summer, it made available an additional 35,000 temporary visas — more than double the usual cap — to help meet demand from hotels, landscaping businesses, restaurants and amusement parks, among other employers... The bad news is that those numbers are too modest and will not offset projected stagnation in the U.S.-born labor force over the coming two decades."

In CNN, Raul Reyes said Abbott is cynically using migrants as props.

"Abbott's busing plan is not just heartless; it's also bad policy -- but that appears to be by design. His state is sending migrants to New York and Washington without coordination with authorities there. This is deliberately cruel, as some migrants arrive not just with emergency housing needs but with health issues," Reyes wrote. "Arguably the most distinctive feature of Abbott's busing plan is not what it does, but what it doesn't do. It doesn't deter unlawful migration, advance immigration reform or promote the humane treatment of asylum-seekers. And it certainly does not solve any 'border crisis.'

"Here's one more thing that Abbott's cruel actions on immigration will do: Inspire other governors to employ the same heartless policies," Reyes wrote. "The conservative media coverage that his stunt has received is likely encouraging other officials to follow his lead. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, for one, has already joined in. His state began sending migrant buses to Washington in May. Of course, there are significant challenges at our southern border. US Customs and Border Protection said in its monthly operational report that there were 207,416 encounters at the US-Mexico border for June... One thing is clear: If the numbers fall, it won't be as a result of Abbott's draconian busing plan."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • There is no other way to describe what is happening except as a failure and a humanitarian crisis.
  • Abbott's ploy is smart politically, but cruel and redundant.
  • My solution is the same as it has been for years: A massive influx of immigration judges and speedy hearings.

I hate to do the throat-clearing, but I always find it necessary. First and foremost I'd like to point out the fundamental story here: Millions of people are risking life and limb to make a treacherous, unlikely-to-succeed journey to the United States, knowing full well they may die or lose their family or be imprisoned in the process. Reading about these stories always hits me hard, mostly because I'm reminded of how often I take for granted the life many of us have here, and it’s humbling to see how much so many others are willing to sacrifice or risk to get it.

There is no doubt that what is happening on the southern border is a failure. The Biden administration's agenda on the border has been incoherent. His rhetoric is all over the place, he has tried to end policies without providing adequate replacements, and his Vice President — who was supposed to "address root causes" of migration flows through partnerships in Latin America —  has spent three whole days there over the last 16 months. Meanwhile, border encounters and fentanyl smuggling have surged.

To me, it looks like a combination of Biden's policies with the inevitable reverberations of the pandemic — and political changes in Central and South America — is what’s sending so many people fleeing to the U.S. We have the unique distinction of being both one of the hardest countries to immigrate to and one of the most tolerant of legal and illegal immigration. Many Americans on the left who view our policies as draconian and cruel can make their case well in a vacuum — the horrors of being a migrant crossing southern Texas or Arizona or California are self-evident. At the same time, in the context of how many other countries treat unauthorized or legal immigrants, there are many worse places to be.

As for Gov. Abbott, I think what he is doing is smart, incredibly cruel, and even redundant.

It's smart: There is no doubt his ploy is doing precisely what he wants it to, which is to draw attention to the border crisis.

It's cruel: There's no way around the fact that he is toying with human lives as political theater. It's not as if he's shipping migrants off to a work camp — some very well may end up better off being sent to Washington D.C., New York or Chicago instead of staying in Texas, where resources are already strained and the welcome they get may be much less friendly. But it's hard to shake the image of someone treating innocent people like chess pieces, and it's plainly irresponsible without coordinating with those cities ahead of time.

It's redundant: Most unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are already living in one of 20 major metro areas. Of course, Austin, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego and Riverside (all in border states) make up seven of those 20 metro areas. But D.C., New York and Chicago are on that list, too.

In a more sane world, what Abbott is doing would actually be part of official U.S. policy. We should be moving migrants awaiting asylum hearings from these border towns into the U.S. interior, because we should all share responsibility for our policies. If we were doing what Abbott is doing in an organized, humane, coherent way, maybe we wouldn't lose some 40% of asylum seekers in the process.

It isn’t fair to folks in Eagle Pass, Texas, or other border towns to live through the chaos of immigration policy driven by the federal government. Federal policies are burdening three or four states in a way they don't burden the other 46, and that's an issue. Cities and states who proclaim to be welcoming to immigrants should, actually, welcome those immigrants.

Of course, no president in my lifetime has been able to successfully navigate this issue, largely because it will take a massive act of Congress to reform what is pure dysfunction. Trump reduced legal and illegal immigration, but some of his policies were also overtly cruel and in some cases counter-productive to the degree that many Americans turned on his policies. Biden appears not to know what he wants his policies to be, and it's hard to find a metric where you could argue his administration has been successful. The result is a legitimate humanitarian crisis, with people dying every single day in our rivers and remote deserts and border states.

I've said before and will say again that my policy solution to this has always been rather simple: We need more immigration judges. A lot more. The migrants coming here are generally people seeking asylum (which they have a right to do) or people seeking work (which can be hugely beneficial to our country, if it isn't done illegally). Only a very small fraction of them are or will ever be criminals or threats to society. Many won't have a claim to asylum or won't be able to get a legal work visa and would then be deported. There are 1.8 million pending immigration cases and only 576 judges to process them. That's 3,125 cases per judge, with 715,797 new court cases recorded in 2022 so far. You can do the math.

Delineating which migrants fall into what bucket is currently impossible. We have hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border every month and not nearly enough law enforcement, lawyers, judges and other officials to process them. The result is that many thousands get released into the U.S. with a pending, faraway court date. Many of those people simply disappear, living for years on end without legal status. Others try to follow the law and navigate our system but run into chaos and dysfunction when they do. Some will find legal, above-board avenues to be granted asylum, join the workforce and integrate into the U.S. But it's not easy.

To the Biden administration’s credit, it’s also true that apprehending two million migrants is not the stuff of an “open border.” Thanks to Trump and Obama, we have improved technology and more barriers on the border, which means far fewer migrants are getting into the U.S. undetected. It’s easy to reframe all those apprehensions as the sign of a secure border, even if it also represents a surge in migrant activity.

I also give the Biden administration credit for working with the Mexican government to hire more immigration judges and provide migrants with more lawyers. This is a good start. A “Remain in Mexico” or Title 42 policy where migrants are being housed in actual facilities rather than violent, sexual-assault-filled encampments, paired with more funding for immigration enforcement, judges and lawyers, could actually be a successful combination. But whatever the change, it is happening far too slowly and on way too small a scale. Biden, and Congress, must act.

Your questions, asked.

We're skipping today's reader question to give our main topic some more space. Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he is planning to hold a vote on codifying same-sex marriage into law. The Respect for Marriage Act would enshrine federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriages and repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The potential vote sets up a "history-making showdown" on the Senate floor on a key cultural issue, according to Punchbowl News. Democrats hope that forcing a vote on marriage equality, which is broadly popular among Americans, will separate them from Republicans. But there is also a good chance the bill, which passed the House with significant Republican support earlier this year, could end up with 10 Republican votes and become law of the land. Sponsors of the bill say they are hoping to carve out an amendment for religious freedom. The Washington Post has the story.

Have a story you think is slipping under the radar? Submit one here.


  • 28%. The percentage of Americans who say it is "completely" true that there is an invasion at the southern border.
  • 25%. The percentage of Americans who say it is "somewhat" true that there is an invasion at the southern border.
  • 19%. The percentage of Americans who say it is "completely false" that there is an invasion at the southern border.
  • 27%. The percentage who say they don't know.
  • 10%. The estimated percentage of migrants crossing the border who evade detection or encounter, according to the American Immigration Council.
  • 50,610. The number of Russian soldiers the Ukrainian government says have died in the war.

Have a nice day.

Electronic tax filing could soon be a few clicks away — free of charge. That's the lede from a recent Washington Post story on one plan the IRS is exploring after an infusion of funds from the federal government. The agency is spending $15 million to study a free, government-backed tax filing system that could overhaul the way Americans file their taxes. For years, corporate tax services have charged fees for people to file their taxes, and private providers like Intuit TurboTax and H&R Block have dominated the market. But now the IRS is looking into rolling out a system more taxpayers can access, which it says will increase its efficiency and reduce the cost of filing. Washington Post has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.