Party over Country: What the Situation at the Southern Border Reveals About Dysfunction in Washington

Kate Rodgers, May 14, 2024

Thousands. That is the number of migrants that have arrived in New York City from the southern border over the past year and a half. Even as the winter chill settled over Manhattan, asylum seekers were huddled on the streets of the city that never sleeps. According to Mayor Eric Adams, the influx of immigrants has pushed the city’s infrastructure to its breaking point, and cost the municipality billions in the process [1]. 


New York is not alone. Since April of 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been busing migrants from the state’s border communities to “blue cities” all across the country, including Chicago, Denver, and DC. A staunch Republican, Abbott defends his policy by arguing that northern cities with Democratic mayors should have to bear the same burden as Texas in dealing with rising migration to the US [2]. Put simply, the Governor is trying to draw national attention to the border crisis. And it’s working. 


Border security has long been a top priority for the Republican Party. GOP candidates have staked their campaigns on limiting immigration, and the alarmist rhetoric around the issue has only ramped up in recent years. Former President Trump himself said that migrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” amidst calling for harsher immigration laws at a campaign event in December of 2023 [3]. Democrats reviled Trump’s xenophobic sentiments, but their openness to border security legislation was at an unprecedented high due in part to the strain brought on by Governor Abbott’s busing policy. Out of the growing humanitarian and political disaster at the border, it seemed as if a rare opportunity for compromise between Republicans and Democrats had emerged. 


GOP lawmakers attempted to take advantage of the situation. They offered Democrats a deal: updated border security policy in exchange for funding for the Ukrainian war effort. On its face, this move looked like a good-faith effort to accomplish the Republican priority of cracking down on immigration while also appeasing the left with expanded aid to Ukraine. The air of bipartisanship, however, proved to be a facade. Republicans were hoping to engineer a political win by refusing to support Ukraine aid unless the package also included draconian border laws that Democrats could never accept. If all went according to plan, GOP lawmakers could block any additional funding for Ukraine while simultaneously blaming Biden and the Democrats for inaction at the border [4]. 


This plan backfired on the GOP when Democrats called their bluff. After months of negotiations in the Senate, headed up by Republican James Lankford, Democrat Chris Murphy, and Independent Kyrsten Sinema, a bipartisan deal was reached. The legislation included expanded detention centers, stricter asylum laws, and even a provision to shut down the border completely if too many migrants were crossing into the US [5]. Holding Ukraine aid hostage seemed to have worked for the Republicans, as the bill represented everything they could have dreamed of in terms of stricter border policy. President Biden himself said that “if the bill were law…I'd shut down the border,” amidst rising concerns about mass migration among rank-and-file Democrats [6]. This massive rhetorical shift on the issue from the left set the stage for the passage of unprecedented right-wing border policies, until former President Trump got involved. 


Trump denounced the legislation before details on its contents were even released. Following suit, Speaker Mike Johnson and other congressional Republicans vowed that the bill would be dead on arrival in the House. Pressure from the former President and other members of the GOP inevitably got to Senate Republicans, as the deal failed its first vote in its house of origin. 


Washington seems to have been turned upside down. Democratic leaders, who have often been criticized for their overly relaxed stance on immigration, called for shutting down the border. The GOP, the party that has been sounding the alarm on border security for decades, refused to support the harshest immigration reform bill in a generation. Congressional Republicans went so far as to block the legislation that they themselves demanded, in a vote that directly countered their proclaimed party platform. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have tied themselves into knots trying to secure symbolic victories for their party, reducing the Ukraine war and the southern border crisis to political bargaining chips in the process. 


The legislative debacle surrounding the failed deal is emblematic of a much deeper problem in Washington. Electoral concerns outweigh the need for legislative solutions, and party litmus tests stifle good-faith bipartisan efforts before they can even get off the ground. Beyond relegating positive policymaking to the back seat, the proliferation of petty partisanship undermines the legitimacy of Washington’s institutions across the board. 


Let’s take another look at the border deal. In supporting the bill, President Biden and the Democrats radically changed their tune on immigration. By calling for stricter laws, they received criticism from the left wing of the party for allowing increased deportations and raising the threshold for asylum seekers. Why would Democrats abandon their long-held humanitarian approach to border security now? Because it’s not popular anymore. 


With the 2024 election looming, just 32 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the border crisis [8]. At the same time, Governor Abbott’s aforementioned migrant busing policy has generated internal pressure from city and state-level Democrats for a solution to rising migration levels. As the immigration issue gained national attention, it likely became clear to Biden and the Democrats that they had to do something to improve their polling on the matter. Thus the border deal was born. 


On the other side of the aisle, Republicans were not willing to deliver the Democrats a political win in an election year, even if it meant accomplishing many of their border security priorities. 


Even as a mere 7 percent of the American public saw no serious problem at the border, Trump still advocated against the bill. Like his successor, he too was looking towards 2024. In an act of blatant self-interest, the former President exercised his authority over congressional Republicans by demanding their votes against the bill, citing his concern that the deal would help Biden in the election [10]. 


The absurdity surrounding the border deal did not end with its failure in Congress. Despite the fact that Lankford was sent to represent the GOP by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he still received broad criticism from Republicans just for participating in the negotiations with Democrats. Alaska Senator and GOP moderate Lisa Murkowski said “​​I have a difficult time understanding again how anyone else in the future is going to want to be on [the Republican] negotiating team. On anything,” after witnessing the treatment of Lankford [11]. The reality is that reaching across the aisle has become a political risk for lawmakers. 


Perhaps it is this sort of pettiness and ineptitude that has Congress’ approval rating at an embarrassing 12 percent [12]. While this measure has been poor historically, the current level of approval is a ten-year low. If nothing else, the fiasco surrounding the southern border proves that partisanship in Washington prevents politicians from solving the issues most important to the American people. With their eyes trained on re-election, it would seem that our senators and representatives have lost sight of the job entrusted to them by their constituents. 


In fairness to Congress, there has always been gridlock and electorally minded politicians in DC. All the way back in 1974, David Mayhew argued that the actions of members of Congress are primarily driven by their desire for reelection in his book Congress: The Electoral Connection [13].  Politicians have long derived their policy positions based on popularity, while engaging in partisanship and self-promotion. Never before, though, has there been such willingness in Congress to make public contradictions of purported party platforms. Today, elected officials consistently make moves that blatantly disrespect congressional norms and undermine the public’s trust in governance to avoid the mere possibility of helping the other party win come November. Clearly, something has changed in Washington. Something has changed in America. 


UCLA professors Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausovitch would call it political calcification. Elections are closer than ever, the stakes are higher than ever, and the dominant issues in politics are more personal than ever [14]. It’s no wonder that politicians in Washington behave as if the next election is life or death, because to them it is. In the past, political disagreements over the size of government or corporate taxes left room for cooperation. For partisans on both sides today, compromising on issues like abortion, immigration, and gun control feels like compromising on one’s very identity. 


Through the lens of political calcification, the contradictions made over the border deal begin to make some sense. To maximize his chances of regaining power, Donald Trump was willing to spew anti-immigrant hate but then oppose a border deal that could potentially help his political opponent. In the same way, Democrats backtracked on their decades-old stance in calling to shut down the border due to poor polling in an election year. For both sides, sacrificing their stance on one major issue is worth preventing the opposition from gaining a majority in the next election. Ever so slowly, though, one becomes two and two becomes three. Before long, our political practices have been replaced by something unrecognizable. 


By putting party over country, politicians in Washington have eroded the legitimacy of congressional institutions. If the House and Senate are to redeem themselves in the eyes of the American people, politicians must enter into conversations across the aisle in good faith. Republicans and Democrats alike must be able to advocate for the interests of the American public without fear of retribution. Above all, lawmakers must accept that disagreement is not aggression and compromise is not failure. 


[1] Fandos, Nicholas. 2023. “New York’s Migrant Crisis Is Growing. So Are Democrats’ Anxieties.” The New York Times, September 3rd, 2023. /2023/09/03/nyregion/migrants-house-races-ny.html.

[2] Korecki, Natasha. 2023. “How Texas Gov. Greg Abbott divided Democrats on immigration with migrant busing.” NBC News, December 17th, 2023. politics/politics-news/texas-gov-greg-abbott-divided-democrats-immigration-migrant-busing-rcna128815.

[3] Layne, Nathan. 2023. “Trump repeats ‘poisoning the blood’ anti-immigrant remark.” Reuters, December 17th, 2023. blood-anti-immigrant-remark-2023-12-16/.

[4] Hulse, Carl. 2024. “On The Border, Republicans Set a Trap, Then Fell Into It.” The New York Times, February 6th, 2024. republicans-ukraine-bill.html.

[5] Baker, Peter. 2024. “Trump’s Border Intervention Gives Biden a Chance to Shift From Defense to Offense.” The New York Times, February 8th, 2024. https://www.nytimes .com/2024/02/07/us/politics/trump-border-biden.html?searchResultPosition=1.

[6] “President Biden Says He’ll Shut the U.S.-Mexico Border if Given the Ability. What Does That Mean?” 2024. PBS NewsHour. January 29th, 2024. /politics/president-biden-says-hell-shut-the-u-s-mexico-border-if-given-the-ability-what-does-that-mean.

[7] Sforza, Lauren. 2024. “The Hill.” The Hill, January th7, 2024. administration/4394262-biden-approval-rating-on-handling-immigration-reaches-all-time-low-poll/.

[8] Timotija, Filip. 2024. “The Hill.” The Hill, February 10, 2024. homenews/senate/4459861-trump-praises-collapse-of-bipartisan-border-deal/.

[9] “The Dying Art of Senate Dealmaking.” 2024. POLITICO. February 8th, 2024. https://www.

[10] Gallup, Inc. 2023. “Congress and the Public | Gallup Historical Trends.” Gallup.Com. November 29th, 2023.

[11]Mayhew, D. R. (1975). Congress: The Electoral Connection, by David R. Mayhew. Political Science Quarterly, 90(2), 335–337.

[12] Riggs, Jonathan. 2024. “Q&A: UCLA Political Scientists on How the 2020 Presidential Campaign Continues to Reverberate.” UCLA, January 22nd, 2024. https://newsroom