Last month, I was puzzled by a friend’s post that popped up in my Facebook feed. “Guess the pandemic is over now since we have open borders. No?” Having just returned to the United States after five years living in Canada, I knew firsthand that the American border was not open — at least not to routine travelers.
Since March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations have consistently extended overland travel restrictions for both the northern and southern U.S. borders, limiting land access to “essential” traffic only. (Air travel is another matter). The Department of Homeland Security just recently announced that fully vaccinated Canadians and Mexicans may enter the U.S. “to visit friends and family or for tourism, via land and ferry border crossings,” starting in November.
Nevertheless, two significant restrictions for our land borders will remain in place once current restrictions are relaxed: (1) Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated visitors will not be permitted to enter; (2) Title 42, which severely limits access to asylum seekers entering from Mexico, will remain in force.
At first, I thought my Facebook friend simply must be mistaken. Then I saw a billboard sponsored by a conservative club near where I live criticizing President Biden for “open borders,” among other things. Soon thereafter Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis decried America’s “open borders” at a press conference announcing an executive order he had issued to “protect Floridians from the dangerous impacts of the Biden border crisis.”
Clearly my friend was more than mistaken. A coordinated misinformation campaign is afoot, heightening xenophobic anxieties on the right and scapegoating foreigners for many of America’s current problems. A central figure driving this narrative is none other than Tucker Carlson.
He went on to blame Mexico and Mexicans for the fentanyl deaths of 100,000 American teenagers, the inflated U.S. housing market, and the 50% increase in the U.S. population since 1990 — all in the span of one program.
In mid-September, Carlson claimed on his show that, “Under Joe Biden, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are coming into the United States every single month.” He went on to blame Mexico and Mexicans for the fentanyl deaths of 100,000 American teenagers, the inflated U.S. housing market, and the 50% increase in the U.S. population since 1990 — all in the span of one program. He also pontificated that Democrats are keeping the southern border open because, ultimately, they plan to maintain power by essentially importing a new electorate comprised of unskilled workers and MS-13 gang members — an outlandish accusation he has subsequently repeated without a shred of evidence.
More recently, Carlson and other right-wing personalities have used the “open border” claim to pin rising COVID-19 infections on this supposed influx of immigrants, refugees and international tourists. And they’re succeeding. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 55% of Republicans and 40% of unvaccinated Americans attribute the latest COVID-19 wave to foreigners spreading the virus. Anthony Fauci directly addressed and unequivocally dismissed this explanation in an interview with CNN on Oct. 3.
‘Encounters’ are not people let in
The source of this “open border” charge, including the hyperbole that “hundreds of thousands” of immigrants are streaming into the country, appears to be monthly U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports documenting an increased number of “encounters” at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tucker Carlson has used the term “encounter” in his rants, and when I questioned my Facebook friend about his open border post, another Facebook user replied and referred me to a Pew Research Center report analyzing this data. The Pew report attests that U.S. Border Patrol “encounters” with migrants numbered 199,777 in July, the highest in 21 years. Those numbers surpassed 200,000 in August. Pew’s analysis also shows that the number of expulsions from the southern border has decreased steadily since President Biden took office.
The definition of the term “encounter” is key to correctly understanding the implications of these reports. U.S. Customs and Border Protection defines an “encounter” as either an arrest or an expulsion. A chart presented in the Pew Research Center report includes a note clarifying: “Migrants who are apprehended are taken into U.S. custody to await adjudication. Migrants who are expelled are immediately returned to their home country or last country of transit without being held in U.S. custody.”
Nothing in these reports, then, suggests that 200,000 migrants entered the U.S. in July or August. Just the opposite, in fact: 200,000 migrants were detained while attempting to enter the U.S. They tried to cross the border but were intercepted and either arrested or expelled.
It is true that a number of those who are apprehended at the border, especially unaccompanied minors, are subsequently released into the U.S. after a hearing or while they await trial. What happens depends on the status border-crossers receive from U.S. agents.
Policy reform is needed
The recent surge of Haitian and Central American migrants attempting to enter America in 2021 clearly has overwhelmed U.S. Border Patrol capacities and strained the entire immigration system. Some migrants reported to NBC News in March that Border Patrol agents released them before they received a specific date to appear in court.
The need for additional resources and policy reform is obvious. Nevertheless, claims that immigrants are “flooding” into the United States as if the borders were “open” are misleading at best.
The motives and internal logic behind the claim are clear.
In the highly charged and ideologically entrenched political environment of our present time, the existence of such a misinformation campaign should come as no surprise. The motives and internal logic behind the claim are clear.
For those who cheered President Trump’s border wall and his now repealed travel bans, the “open borders” narrative offers vindication for their position. For those hailing anti-maskers and antivaxxers as freedom-fighting patriots, it offers a satisfactory explanation for COVID casualties that doesn’t contradict their convictions. It’s the foreigners’ fault. But foreigners can’t be faulted if large numbers of them aren’t getting into the country. Therefore, the borders must be “open.”
Strategically, this right-wing narrative is rather brilliant. It strikes the perfect energizing note for a particular political base. However, there are deeper and more disturbing currents at work here beyond the political expediency of the moment. Particularly concerning is the white supremacist undertow.
“Open borders” is essentially a 2021 remake of Donald Trump’s 2016 “bad hombres” conceit, which itself was a variation of a generations-old “filthy foreigner” motif. Foreigners are beating us abroad and ruining us from within. Mexico is exporting its rejects and importing our jobs. Now these “filthy foreigners” are killing us with COVD as well as threatening our women and ruining our kids with drugs. In biblical terms, they’re unclean.
Fear is the genre of this “story,” and its language is prejudice, plain and simple. It should be rejected as such, especially by those who profess Jesus. A faith rooted to love of God and love of neighbor cannot abide a politics grounded in ideological convenience and fear of the other.
Todd Thomason is a gospel minister, justice advocate and recovering white moderate who most recently served as senior minister at Kingsway Baptist Church in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He earned a doctor of ministry degree from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and a master of divinity degree from McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.
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