Texans Feel D.C. Politicians Fail to Grasp Second Border 'Crisis'—its Economic Impact

During a recent conversation about the influx of migrants at the border, Democratic Texas Representative Vicente Gonzalez, who represents a border district, let out a stream of frustration. In the middle of a pandemic, border communities don't have the resources to handle the worsening situation, he said, before turning to a personal gripe.

"What I find most absurd is Mexicans across the border from me can't come across the bridge, friends and family are not allowed to come over or do business," he told Newsweek of the usually thriving cross-border commerce that has been stunted by pandemic restrictions.

He also spoke up for a group that has received far less attention, as the number of Central Americans seeking asylum at the border has steadily risen in the early weeks of the Biden presidency: undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for decades.

"Migrants have been here 20 years, undocumented, they've never committed a crime and have held a job forever," he said. "We have to find a way to get them safe passage."

The high-octane, whiplash-inducing politicization in Washington of the situation at the border, while unsurprising, has obscured the way immigration and the border are viewed in communities closest to the surge. While finger-pointing and photo ops lead the day among politicians — some who see the current mess as a political gift — Texans view the situation through an economic lens, in ways that don't easily reduce to familiar left-right talking points.

Artemio Muniz, a chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans and aTexas conservative, often opposed and criticized Donald Trump during his campaign and presidency. Muniz, who recently opened a manufacturing factory in Mexico and is making more hires in Houston, understands the value of business with the U.S.' southern neighbor, and said the border conversation "hits a nerve" for many Texans.

Similar to those who spoke with Newsweek, Muniz explained that he didn't have anything against the predominantly Central American asylum seekers. But he used the word "equity" to advocate for immigrants who have lived in the country for years.

"The phrase amongst ourselves is equity, they've built equity and should get a shot that is merit-based," he said. The feeling from Texans he speaks to is that Central Americans are coming in and "cutting the line."

In conjunction with the American Jewish Committee, which has convened a Texas Latino Jewish Leadership Council, Muniz is working to find a workable immigration compromise Republicans might sign onto and has floated the idea of polling undocumented immigrants in the country to ask them what they want.

From his experience, he said the immigrants don't want citizenship, but to be able to work with a permit. It's Muniz's way of trying to cut through the slog of the immigration conversation and advocate for those who are already here.

The closure of the U.S.-Mexico land bridge for people seeking entrance to the country with a tourist or border-crossing visa decimated commerce with the United States' largest trading partner—dropping two-way trade at the Laredo Port close to 20 percent for most of 2020, and plunging more than 50 percent at the El Paso port.

Texans with experience in business in the state who support Biden said Latinos have been hit hard, with the end of year holidays and coming Easter week, serving as usual prime times for Mexicans to "flood" Texas in pre-pandemic years as they come to shop.

"There is an underlying resentment here that we are so concerned about these immigrants from a humanitarian perspective and we've been getting our ass beat," said Gilbert Ocañas, who served in the U.S. Small Business Administration during Bill Clinton's tenure as president, and is the chief political advisor to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg. "Not that anybody wants to diminish the plight of Central American migrants, but it doesn't mean we've put enough effort into the economic well-being of Mexicans on the border."

This dynamic, while politically sensitive, could imperil Biden's agenda, his supporters said.

"Rep. Gonzalez is right, there is a problem here," said attorney Jacob Monty, a former member of the RNC's Hispanic Task Force who supported Trump in 2016 before becoming disillusioned. He not just backed Biden in 2020, but fundraised for his campaign. Monty, too, referred to the idea of "equity."

"There are eight to 12 million undocumented who have more equity than the new arrivals. I do think we need to figure out how to address the equity first because I think there are a lot of people concerned that if this does turn into a full-blown crisis it is going to hurt the ability of Dreamers to get legislation or the rest of immigration reform to happen," he said.

But many Texans dispute the notion that an "us versus them" dynamic exists with Mexicans in the U.S. and arriving Central Americans. To Cindy Ramos-Davidson, the CEO of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the national media and beltway politicians have identified the wrong "crisis."

"Business still trying to rebound from COVID, that's a crisis. Businesses trying to get back on solid footing, that's a challenge," she said.

While she acknowledged that the intertwined fates of border communities and Mexico have been "devastating" for downtown El Paso businesses due to pandemic closures, Ramos-Davidson said people don't understand what's going on is an "economic crisis more than a migrant crisis."

"I can see Juarez, Mexico, right from my office," she said during a phone call with Newsweek, "and I will tell you there is nobody lined up on the bridge to break it down."

While Democrats like himself have been critical of the Biden administration's handling of the border surge, Gonzalez also called a recent border trip by Republican members of Congress a hypocritical "dog and pony show." Others said it was feigned outrage and backbone that was curiously missing when Trump separated families under his much-maligned zero-tolerance policy.

Cristina Tzintzun, a former Democratic Senate candidate, said immigrants have been used as a political football for two decades, including by Texas politicians Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott.

"Children have suffered, and the latest collateral damage, Central Americans," she said. "When one in three of us in Texas are immigrants or children of immigrants, for me it's not that someone is jumping the line, it's that we have the political ability to create an immigration system that works."

There is no easy fix for the influx of migrants at the border, and an immigration overhaul introduced by Biden has been tried before and failed. But there is concern that a worsening crisis or lack of priority on the economy and jobs for Texans in border communities, could hurt Democrats with Latino voters in areas where Trump did surprisingly well.

Kristian Ramos, a Latino vote expert, said Democrats need to argue that everyone benefits from the flow of people into the country.

"Republicans have been fostering a narrative of competition and economic scarcity for years, just turn on Fox News every single night," he said, noting that as labor forces grow older, countries all over the world seek new arrivals to remain economically competitive.

"The U.S. has people willing to risk life and limb and literally travel during a plague," he said. "We have to find a way to make immigration work for the country to build a stronger economy and Democrats need to lead with this messaging."

el paso
A pedestrian walks down El Paso Street, a major shopping area, on October 23, 2020 in downtown El Paso, Texas. - El Paso's downtown has always been reliant on shoppers from neighboring Ciudad Juarez, but the border closure to non-essential traffic from Mexico has hurt businesses, whose main clientele is Mexican shoppers. Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images