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Ramsey: Why would politicians fix immigration problems when they can campaign on the mess?

Mexico Immigration Detention

Asylum-seekers cross the border Thursday between El Paso and Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

Our elected class — federal division — is spending more time arguing about the mess on the border than fixing the mess on the border.

They have been able to solve other problems. The response to Hurricane Harvey was bipartisan and, as these things go, fairly smooth. And even within the gridlocked debates over immigration policy and enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border, lawmakers were able to pass a $4.6 billion aid package as stories of horrible treatment of migrant children and families came to light this spring.

Overall, though, the political class hasn’t had the chops to address the border at all — except as a platform for rhetoric, fundraising and posturing.

If results are the measure, there’s not much to measure.

A devoted observer might get a bellyful of this and become a cynic — or go the other way and try to figure out why the pinheads in Washington, D.C., are doing what they’re doing.

But even a cursory glance at the polling in Texas shows Republican and Democratic voters deeply divided in a way that makes it difficult for the people they elect. If the partisan voters don’t overlap much, their representatives can get into political danger by entertaining certain ideas, or anything that even looks like negotiating, with the other side.

Or so it seems if you look at poll results and then watch how the people in Congress have acted — and not acted — on immigration problems that have compounded for years.

In the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, completed last month, 28 percent of Texas voters said that either border security or immigration is the most important problem facing the country. But look inside the numbers: Among Republicans, 46 percent put those two problems at the top. Among Democrats, only 7 percent did.

Those two problems top most important issues facing the state, too, with 37 percent of voters picking one or the other. But among Democrats, 12 percent chose border security/immigration (14 percent chose health care and 13 percent chose political corruption/leadership); among Republicans, 59 percent said border security and immigration are problems No. 1 and No. 2.

It goes on like that.

Remember President Donald Trump’s proposal to impose tariffs on imports from Mexico if that country didn’t crack down on migrants bound for the U.S.? Among Democrats, 76 percent opposed that, and among Republicans, 74 percent were in favor of it — even though Republicans were split evenly on whether that policy would help or hurt the Texas economy. Would a policy like that curb immigration to the U.S.? While 70 percent of Republicans said it would be effective, 79 percent of Democrats said it would not.

It’s not a shocker that Republicans and Democrats disagree. But suppose you were an elected official, one who wanted to find a solution that both your opponents and your supporters could agree upon. Hard to find the overlap, except when children and families are in the center ring.

A year ago, when family separations dominated the news and the administration was trying to squeeze off the stream of asylum seekers on the border, voters weren’t willing to support taking kids away from families — particularly when the government agencies splitting families were unable to say which children had been separated from which adults. Trump backed down, signing an executive order halting those separations.

A year later, the country’s immigration enforcement apparatus faces government reports of terrible conditions where migrants are being detained, and the current policy has forced Mexico to hold asylum seekers in camps that almost make the U.S. facilities look good.

Look at the practice, and look at the political conversation. The first is a gnarly and messy problem, but a solvable one. The second has become a way for each set of elected officials — and the people who would like to become elected officials — to appeal to partisan voters on both sides.

It looks like everyone thinks the political gains come from their opposition to their hated opponents — and not from their ability to attack and solve a complicated and frustrating problem plaguing the U.S. and Mexico, not to mention other countries all over the planet.

The leaders are waiting for their followers to tell them what to do, instead of the other way around. While they wait, they’re playing political games.

— Ross Ramsey is co-founder and executive editor of The Texas Tribune. His column appears Tuesday.

Today's Bible verse

“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ ”

Hebrews 13:5

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