The Costs of Border Security
Texas will spend $800 million on border security over the next two years. Is the splurge worth it?
On Sunday night, after the Dallas Cowboys failed to intervene during an 80-yard pass that resulted in a game-winning touchdown for the New Orleans Saints, Greg Abbott vented his frustration by joking on Twitter:
*#%>¥! @Cowboy defense. More porous than the Texas border.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) October 5, 2015
I thought it was funny. And my appreciation only deepened after the backlash led me to look at the joke with a more critical eye. Abbott was hardly the only Cowboys fan who took solace in humor that night, and his joke works on several levels. It’s a joke about the team’s errant defense. It’s also a joke about the federal government—Texans can disagree about whether the southern border is sufficiently secure, but since it is an international border, the question is one that largely falls to the federal government.
And it’s also a joke about politics (hence the backlash, no doubt). Many Democrats felt that the Abbott’s tweet was brazenly glib, even maliciously flippant. The governor has championed Texas’s ongoing and expensive border security plan, and campaigned on a generally strict approach to that problem and the closely related issue of illegal immigration—and yet there he is on Twitter, clowning around about something that wants us all to take seriously when it suits his purposes. I think this is an overwrought interpretation; as long as we’re overthinking the joke, I think you could also read the line as a poke at a particular subset of the Republican base, one that clearly deserves to be satirized.
With that said, Abbott’s critics are also making a worthwhile point: political rhetoric can have costly consequences. And the imbroglio reminded me that I was meaning to address the Texas Lyceum poll’s findings related to border security and illegal immigration. As I mentioned last week, the results related to those subjects struck me as odd and internally contradictory. The Lyceum pollsters once again found that in the public’s opinion, at least, “immigration” is the most important issue facing the state of Texas. In response to an open-ended question, 24 percent of respondents volunteered that answer; an additional 5 percent offered “border security.” Similarly, 42 percent of respondents said that they “strongly support” the state’s plan to spend $800 million on the border security surge over the next two years.
Those results would give the impression that Texans are highly concerned about immigration and the border. But other results, from the same poll, suggest a more sanguine attitude. When respondents were asked to name the most important issue facing the nation as a whole, “the economy” took the top spot; only 10 percent offered “immigration.” Two-thirds of respondents—including a majority of those who identified as Republicans—expressed support for the federal government’s current approach to immigration enforcement, under which unauthorized immigrants who attend college or serve in the military are eligible for renewable work permits, and are exempted from deportation. In fact, 42 percent of respondents “strongly support” that policy. And almost half of respondents went on to say that the policy provides at least some incentive for people to illegally enter the country. As for the border security surge that so many Texans “strongly” support? Only 14 percent expect it to be “highly effective.”
Now, this is just one poll we’re looking at, and the Texas Lyceum’s goal is to gauge Texan public opinion on a variety of issues, so we can’t consider this the definitive account of how Texans think about border security and illegal immigration. But what I see in these results is a certain disjunct between how Texans feel about these issues, and how they perceive statewide public opinion more generally—a disconnect that can be attributed to political rhetoric. Is the border secure? Since we still haven’t defined “security” in this context, that’s a somewhat subjective question. But in Texas, at least, I think we can safely say that the southern border is more secure than it was a year ago. In the summer of 2014, as we all probably remember, the Rio Grande Valley sector was experiencing a surge of unauthorized migration from Central America. This was a legitimately anomalous situation and one that had real implications for security, although the scared and dispossessed children themselves were, of course, among the least menacing people imaginable. The surge in unauthorized migration, however, has since subsided.
What hasn’t changed is the amount of overheated political rhetoric the general public is hearing from its political leaders. In Texas, at least, the rhetoric has actually become louder and more abundant. Border security and illegal immigration have been hot topics in the state since last year’s Republican primaries, mostly thanks to Dan Patrick, and hot topics in national politics since this summer, mostly thanks to Donald Trump. Meanwhile, as Paul Brown pointed out on Capital Tonight last week, Texans may be less cynical about politicians than one would think; another striking result from this year’s Lyceum poll is that a majority of Texans approve of how Abbott is doing his job as governor, and a majority of Texans also approve of how Obama is doing his job as president.
And that, I think, helps explain why two-thirds of Texans would express support for an $800 million border security plan, even though only a handful have high hopes for it. As a number of Democratic legislators have pointed out, it’s not even clear how the state plans to spend the money. The Lyceum poll offers a few more pieces of evidence that Texans, as opposed to the subset of Texans who are extremely vocal on social media, haven’t succumbed en masse to alarmism. At the same time, after a solid eighteen months of sturm und drang, it’s not really that surprising that the general public would have the impression that border security and immigration are real problems for Texas.
The result, though, is potentially self-perpetuating: if Texans are telling pollsters that immigration and border security are among the most important issues facing the state, they’re creating further incentive for political leaders to treat those issues as such. The state’s scarce resources aren’t the only thing at stake. It would be a real shame if Texas lawmakers in 2017 repeal the Texas DREAM Act or ban “sanctuary” policies, in my view, and it’s a safe bet that they’re going to try.