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Even as many Republicans rail against mask mandates and spread skepticism about vaccines, GOP leaders have settled on one place where they take the spread of Covid very seriously — the border.
The pivot occurred quickly. This week, one Republican leader after another rushed to blame the spread of the virus, not on the unvaccinated but on immigrants.
Former President Donald Trump put out a statement linking to a New York Post article claiming that “nearly 7,000 immigrants who tested positive for COVID-19 have passed through a Texas city that has become the epicenter of the illegal immigration surge.” (Actually, migrants who test positive are quarantined. Videos of migrants roaming free and being dropped off at bus stations turned out to be immigrants who had tested negative and were on their way out of the country.)
But for Trump, who famously launched his presidential campaign by warning about Mexican rapists, the focus on migrants was like playing his greatest hits all over again. Think of it as the 2021 version of the immigrant “caravans.”
This is all taking place as public health officials are desperately trying to keep the focus on the urgent need for more vaccinations. Some Republicans, including Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell have joined in the chorus urging Americans to get the shots, but the loudest and most popular messaging, from the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, is that there’s no disease dangerous enough that anyone should sacrifice their right to ignore a public health crisis.
Except when you can blame that disease on someone else.
With remarkable unanimity — and a stunning lack of actual evidence — conservative media has seized on the specter of disease-infested immigrants as the real danger to public health.
Fox’s Sean Hannity declared that the border (rather than the lack of vaccinations) is the “biggest super-spreader” event of the pandemic. Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire warned of “COVID-Positive Illegal Immigrants Flooding Across The Border.” National Review insisted: “This is the reality: The federal government is successfully terrifying people about COVID while it is shrugging at the thousands of infectious illegal aliens who are coming into the country and spreading the virus.”
Back in May, the conservative Washington Examiner ran a cover story that declared “COVID Is Over. So, Get Over It.” It was accompanied by a picture of a mask being set aflame. But, like other right-wing publications, the Examiner is suddenly no longer over it, pivoting to focus on illegal immigrants — the issue that they never get over. “Biden hypocrisy endangers American lives on southern border,” read one headline. “This incoherent, contradictory policy undermines both public health and the rule of law. And it will get innocent people killed.”
A Wall Street Journal columnist chimed in as well: “If Biden Is Serious About Covid, He’ll Protect the Border.” Needless to say, right-wing Twitter is a dumpster fire of xenophobia and hysteria about infections flooding across the southern border.
A viral Facebook post claimed: “The COVID delta variant is so deadly Biden is restricting travel for Americans into Mexico but is keeping the border wide open for illegal aliens to walk right into our country.”
As Factcheck.org noted: “Neither of its major points is correct. Biden hasn’t initiated any travel restrictions for Americans going to Mexico since the delta variant became dominant in the U.S. in July, and his administration is enforcing existing immigration laws.”
Earlier this week, the administration said that it would continue the policy of quickly expelling migrants from the U.S., citing the spread of the delta variant. Despite some stumbles on border policy, the fact checkers pointed out that there were more than 500,000 expulsions from February to June under Title 42, which was the law the Trump administration used to expel migrants to prevent the spread of the pandemic.
But infected migrants do not even begin to account for the actual reality of the pandemic, which is spreading far away from the border, and with very different causes. If anything, it’s states in the interior such as Missouri and Arkansas that present the greatest risk to themselves and other unvaccinated Americans.
Those facts, however, are unlikely to slow the GOP’s campaign to blame the border crisis. Instead, the message seems to be taking root among unvaccinated Americans. A recent Axios poll found that 36.9 percent of the unvaccinated blame “foreigners traveling in the U.S.” for the surge in Covid-19 cases. The GOP senses political opportunity in those poll numbers and even officials who have consistently downplayed the pandemic itself have quickly gotten on message.
After President Joe Biden chided him for standing in the way of mitigation efforts, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fired back on Wednesday: “Why don’t you do your job?” he demanded. “Why don’t you get this border secure? And until you do that, I don’t want to hear a blip about Covid from you, thank you.”
DeSantis, whose state now accounts for 1 in 5 new Covid cases, went further, accusing Biden of actually “facilitating” the spread of the virus. “You have hundreds of thousands of people pouring across every month,” insisted DeSantis, who has banned vaccine passports and threatened to withhold state funds from school districts that mandate masks. “Not only are they letting them through, they’re farming them out all across the country, putting them on planes, putting them on buses.”
Florida, of course, does not share a border with Mexico. But Texas does, and the GOP there is laser focused on the threat of diseased Mexican and Central American immigrants.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) blamed rising Covid rates not on unvaccinated Texans — there were 9 million eligible as of August 1 — but on the foreigners. “And Biden wants to release even more COVID positive illegal immigrants,” he declared. “This is lunacy.”
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) went even further, calling for Biden’s impeachment over the border issue. “Here we are saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to wear masks on the floor of the House, but we’re going to do nothing to stop the flow of people coming across our border,’” he complained to Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
In Texas, that rhetoric has become policy, highlighting the contrast between the GOP’s laissez-faire approach to the pandemic and its new passion for blaming it on migrants. Even though he had just signed an executive order banning mask mandates and vaccine requirements, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state troopers to begin targeting vehicles if they suspected they carried migrants who might be infected.
Freedom! Morphed quickly into Lock them Up!
After the U.S. Department of Justice sued, a federal judge temporarily blocked the order, but Abbott remained defiant. “The Biden Administration has knowingly—and willfully—released COVID-19 positive migrants into Texas communities, risking the potential exposure and infection of Texas residents,” Abbott said in a statement.
All of this is deeply cynical, but also familiar. The focus on the border allows some Republicans to fall back into their comfort zone of identity politics and the familiar narratives about scary foreigners and the need for big walls. More immediately, it gives them a cudgel to beat Biden, while deflecting attention from the failures of their own reckless policies.
It is a well-worn playbook that plays well with the base … and donors.
“No elected official is doing more to enable the transmission of COVID in America than Joe Biden with his open borders policies,” DeSantis said in a fundraising email that went out immediately after his press conference. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to surge, even as the GOP has decided that stoking outrage over an immigration crisis is a political winner.
Unfortunately, we will count the consequences of their wager in human lives.