Thunderstorms rolled overhead early on the last Monday morning in April, headed south. The Rio Grande flowed in swift green channels between Piedras Negras, Mexico, and Eagle Pass, a small Texas border town two hours west of San Antonio. On the Mexican side of the river, where the shore is lined with live oak and mesquite, officials pulled the body of a Texas National Guard member from the water after a days-long search. The soldier, specialist Bishop Evans, had drowned three days earlier. He died as a hero. On duty as part of Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, Evans had jumped into the river to rescue two migrants trying to cross into the United States. Both of the migrants survived.
This tragedy was one of many. Evans’s corpse was the eleventh recovered around Piedras Negras in one month. Another twelve had been found around Eagle Pass, in what U.S. Customs and Border Protection calls the Del Rio sector, over the same period. Most had drowned trying to cross from Mexico. Some, paddling across the river on inner tubes, died when they were thrown off and into the fast-moving waters. Others, wading across shallow portions of the river, had stepped into deep holes or gotten their feet caught on hidden branches and debris. Still others had lost a fight with the current. That is what happened to Evans. Powerful undercurrents had sucked him down. Like most of the Texas National Guard troops Abbott has ordered to the border, he had not been outfitted with a flotation device that could have prevented his death.
About two miles downriver from where Evans died, just three hours after his body was recovered, a familiar scene unfolded. Under the international bridge in Eagle Pass, U.S. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy held a press conference with ten other Republican House members to inveigh against President Joe Biden’s border policies. Since Biden took office, the Texas border has turned into a sort of favorite stage for political performances by congressional Republicans—just as it had often been for Democrats during the Trump years. GOP members of Congress from states as far away as Ohio and South Carolina have cut TV ads for the midterm elections in front of border barriers.
Representative Tony Gonzales, a Republican whose district includes Eagle Pass and who hosted the latest visit, was the first to take the podium. “It is a gloomy day here in Eagle Pass,” Gonzales said, looking skyward. Earlier that morning, he said, the delegation had ridden in a Border Patrol boat to the spot where Evans had drowned. This trip wasn’t just another photo op, he promised. “It’s one thing to come down here and take a picture and offer rhetoric and blame the administration for everything that’s going wrong,” Gonzales said. “We haven’t done that. We’ve listened to others. We have answers, we have solutions to these issues.”
For a fleeting moment, it seemed possible that the solemnity of the occasion might call forth something more than the usual rhetoric and blame-gaming. But the answers and solutions never came. Instead, the House members parroted the same old arguments: The border needs more walls, more Border Patrol agents, more detention centers. We need to send more migrants back. We have to scare migrants out of coming. “And it starts with Title 42,” Gonzales said.
A provision of the Public Health Act of 1944, Title 42 is at the center of the most recent political skirmishes over U.S. immigration policy. It gives the executive branch the power to close the nations’s borders during public health crises. Though it was designed to manage pandemics, not immigration, the Trump administration used the COVID-19 outbreak to push the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) into invoking the statute in May 2020. This quickly accomplished a goal the administration had long pursued—the effective end of political asylum in the U.S. The government began refusing entry to those trying to claim asylum, purportedly to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Whatever their claims, migrants were summarily expelled to Mexico, without the deportation trials and due process that they had been promised for decades under U.S. policy. Millions have been expelled this way.
The Biden administration has continued to use Title 42, over the objections of advocates for immigrants’ rights. (Among asylum-seekers who did get hearings in fiscal year 2021, 63 percent were turned down.) But on April 1, the CDC announced that Title 42 would be revoked, with border policies returning to the status quo on May 23. The administration had been under mounting pressure to end Title 42, especially as other coronavirus precautions, such as the requirement that air travelers wear masks, were pulled back. As asylum-seekers began arriving from Ukraine, some observers had called out Biden for hypocrisy, as the U.S. began allowing in Ukrainians while continuing to expel migrants from other countries.
The debate that has ensued has been—like most border debates—almost exclusively about politicians angling for advantage in the next election. Republicans and their media allies have pounced on Biden’s move as a sign of the president’s “weak” immigration policies. GOP senators blocked a $10 billion domestic coronavirus relief package because Democratic leaders wouldn’t let them vote on whether to keep Title 42 in place. Some Democrats, meanwhile, want Biden to keep it in effect until after the midterm elections, citing polls that show many voters fear a sudden influx of migrants. The Title 42 reversal, facing numerous lawsuits, is currently held up in court. But it provided the House members in Eagle Pass with their main talking points.
“In thirty days from now,” McCarthy said, “Biden wants to lift Title 42. Everyone will tell you even more people will come. If it’s unsustainable today, what will it look like a month from now?” It was the only concrete point McCarthy made. The minority leader used the rest of his time to pledge allegiance to Trumpian orthodoxy on immigration. Just three days earlier, new audio had revealed that McCarthy contemplated asking Trump to resign in the wake of the January 6 insurrection—and this trip to the border, hastily arranged in the aftermath, was widely seen as a stunt to divert attention from McCarthy’s momentary apostasy.
In his rambling remarks, McCarthy sounded as much like Trump as possible, describing border crossers variously as fentanyl mules, gang members, human traffickers, sexual predators, and terrorists. When it came to Biden, McCarthy’s message was clear: if this president would only get tough about deterrence, people would stop trying to cross the border.
The invoking of Title 42 has resulted in the harshest U.S. immigration policy since 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the U.N. Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which included what he called a “Bill of Rights for refugees.” But even with Title 42 in place, Border Patrol agents have apprehended a record number of migrants over the past two years. (The increase began under Trump, when thousands who had avoided traveling during the height of the pandemic began arriving.) In March of this year alone, the Border Patrol encountered more than 41,600 undocumented migrants in the Del Rio sector, including more than 1,000 minors traveling by themselves. That’s an enormous number for any place along the border, but especially for this remote region.
What explains this influx? A high percentage of asylum-seekers who get expelled are turning around and trying to cross again. At various times since the Trump administration began blocking such migrants under Title 42, one out of every two apprehended by Border Patrol had been expelled over the previous year, compared with a typical rate of less than 10 percent. The massive number of what the federal government calls “recidivists” has pushed Border Patrol to the brink. Every day officers are stopping thousands —many for the second, third, or fourth time. Last year, the libertarian Cato Institute calculated that, accounting for repeat crossers, the number of migrants arriving at the border in early 2021 was identical to that in early 2019, before Title 42 was invoked—despite the record number of arrests.
A serious conversation about the border crisis would have to begin by acknowledging that extending Title 42 expulsions for political (rather than public health) reasons is not a workable or sustainable way to manage the border. At least one of the Republicans in Eagle Pass recognized this. “Title 42 is a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound,” Representative Chip Roy, whose district runs from Austin to San Antonio, told me after the press conference. When I asked him what real change would look like—what could actually heal the wound—Roy demurred, saying he couldn’t comment on legislation he may or may not be working on. So much, again, for answers and solutions.
After the press conference ended, McCarthy and most of his colleagues packed into vans and sped off toward San Antonio, where they would catch a plane back to Washington, D.C. I decided to travel upstream, toward the spot where Evans had drowned. Along the way, I stopped to talk with two Texas National Guard soldiers who stood next to a Humvee, looking listlessly toward the water. We made small talk about the weather and the river. Then I asked them how they were doing in the wake of Evans’s death. “It hit hard because I knew him personally; him and I were close,” said one, who didn’t share his name because he wasn’t authorized to speak with the press. “How are you coping?” I asked. He was quiet for a moment, then said that the best thing he could tell himself was, “It’s just another week.” He had to just do his job. “It is what it is,” he said, gazing out at the river.
As I kept going, I meandered down the cliffs to a spot where the paved street became a dirt road winding into the mesquite by the banks of Rio Grande. I stopped suddenly. In front of me, a Border Patrol van was parked next to another Humvee. A Border Patrol agent was talking with a group of seven migrants as three National Guard members looked on, brandishing their rifles and speaking into their radios. The migrants, including at least one child, were calm and orderly; they listened to instructions, and then piled into a van. Like the Guard member said, it was just another week.