The Bipartisan Border Consensus Moves Right: an Interview With Adam Johnson

The US Border Patrol in the Algodones Dunes, California. Photo: Dept. of Homeland Security.

In recent weeks, longtime media analyst Adam Johnson has been looking through scores of articles and analyzing Democrats’ rhetoric to see how the border was being framed. One of the texts he looked at was the emergency national security supplemental bill that emerged for a vote on the Senate floor. This bipartisan border bill had been at the negotiation table for months, and it included provisions for military aid for Ukraine and Israel. The bill was ultimately voted down, after Donald Trump rejected it and the Republican Party followed suit. In our conversation, Johnson talks about his deep dive into the coverage surrounding the deal, and he speculates on what that means in this election year: that Democrats have entered new political terrain around the border and immigration enforcement. This interview is based on articles Johnson wrote for The Real News (“Media ‘Border Deal’ Coverage Erases Actual Human Stakes) and The Nation (“The Democrats’ Hard-Right Turn on Immigration Is a Disaster In Every Way”), both places that he contributes to regularly. He also wrote “Top 10 Media Euphemisms for Violent Bipartisan Anti-immigrant Policies,” at his Substack, The Column. Johnson cohosts the popular podcast Citations Needed, where they discussed the border on their February 21 edition. Johnson’s media analysis spans back nearly a decade, much of it for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

Let’s start with the “border deal.” In The Real News you write that it dehumanizes migrants. Can you tell us a little bit about what the border deal is, and some key points about the coverage?

It’s a Republican border deal by framing and admission. Senators Chris Murphy, Tina Smith, and Mark Warner have framed it as a Republican border deal. Almost entirely. It is a 90 to 95 percent Republican deal in nature. They’ve repeatedly said that Republicans demanded XYZ and they gave them XYZ. This is how they’re framing it, because otherwise the hypocrisy gotcha doesn’t really work.

Can you clarify what you mean by “hypocrisy gotcha”?

If it’s not an overwhelming Republican bill, then the idea that they’re abandoning their won bill in service of Trump—which has been their primary gotcha—doesn’t make sense.

But let’s look at the substance of what the bill is.

Among other things, it has $8 billion in emergency funding for ICE, which more than doubles ICE’s enforcement budget. Do you remember “abolish ICE,” back five years ago or so?

It includes $3 billion in increased detention, a mechanism to shut down the border, and $7 billion to Customs and Border Protection, including the continuation of Trump’s wall. And so this is both objectively and how the Democrats describe a far-right Republican bill. That’s the appeal of it.

And the clever idea behind this is that a typical triangulation, that is, if you take a right-wing policy and adopt it as your own, you therefore take away that issue a little quicker come election time. It is for those who view politics as merely a game to be won rather than a moral terrain to advance the greatest good of all people. If you were to take this logic to its extreme, Democrats could also support an abortion ban or decertify the 2020 election. I mean, where does it end? President Biden could get that face-off surgery and become Trump himself.

You write that while there has been a bipartisan consensus on border enforcement for 30 years, the Democrats’ embracing of this type of far-right border bill means they have entered new political terrain. What do you mean by that?

This is a huge 180-degree turn rhetorically from what Democrats had been claiming, at least since the Trump years, about their border policy, which is one based on humanitarianism, based on dignifying asylum seekers, based on not being cruel. All that’s gone. The criticism of family separations, kids in cages, all that kind of mocking during Trump has now evaporated.

There hasn’t been an attempt to paint the bill as progressive or liberal. They haven’t really bothered doing that. And the rhetoric has been nasty. Senate Democrats posted on their Twitter page that Senators Tim Scott and Lyndsey Graham, who have opposed this bill, “have sided with the drug cartels.” Several progressive Democrats, what The New York Times pejoratively dismissed as “Hispanic activists,” have come out against this. Alex Padilla, the senator from California. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is opposed, and others as well. So are they too pro–drug cartel? There is this nasty demagoguery.

All this is laundered through euphemism, which I wrote about on my Substackand in The Real News, where I talk about the various ways in which the human costs are obscured. According to the International Organization for Migration, the U.S.-Mexico border is the deadliest land crossing in the world. And so if you double the enforcement, and triple the broader security apparatus, bring in more surveillance drones, more weapons, invariably more people will die. There is a real human cost to this type of militarization.

And to tie it to the elections, it does date back to the logic of the 1994 Operation Gatekeeper, which Democrats also got behind in an effort to co-opt border policy in anticipation of the election that year, where they infamously got smoked.

Keep in mind, too, that Biden in 2020 mobilized a lot of the immigration activists who opposed Trump’s policies. He rode that wave to pick up a lot of young votes, a lot of progressive voters, a lot of people who are sympathetic to or adjacent to immigrant communities. And this cruel policy shift has really moved them to the right. In the days after Democrats embrace this hard-right bill, Trump began to double down on things like internment camps, shipping off immigrants, because he has to differentiate himself from the Democrats, at least rhetorically.

We’re gonna have this fortress America mentality. No one wants to deal with any of the underlying issues. And we have to deal with global inequality. No one wants to deal with climate change. That’s too egg heady and academic and difficult. We’re just going to do what we always do, which is cops and cages. And cops and cages are the solution to every social ill, whether it’s homelessness, crime, or whatever. That’s the order of the day. The bipartisan consensus. Democrats and Republicans both want it. The worst place for a vulnerable group to be is on the business end of a bipartisan consensus.

This first appeared on The Border Chronicle.

Todd Miller is the author of Build Bridges Not Walls and editor of The Border Chronicle.