Immigration policy could be an election issue in Wisconsin this fall, even if the Mexican border is thousands of miles away from Wisconsin.
Both Republican U.S. Reps. Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Tom Tiffany of Minocqua recently visited the Southern border to highlight concerns about border security. Meanwhile, a federal judge has blocked the Biden administration from rolling back the Trump administration’s Title 42 immigration policy.
Fitzgerald’s staff told WisPolitics.com that the Juneau Republican is currently visiting the border. He also visited in July last year, raising concerns about illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants coming into the United States. Fitzgerald did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Title 42, but he did voice support for the policy last year.
Wisconsin Republicans in Washington, D.C., have fought to keep Title 42 in place, voicing concerns about drugs and human trafficking coming into the state.
The Title 42 public health authority — implemented in 2020 by the Trump administration — is set to expire May 23. Under the policy, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol can immediately remove detainees from border detention facilities. The measure allows the president to halt or decrease immigration to avoid spreading disease.
Border security has been a focus for Republicans during the 2021-2022 legislative session, with Sen. Ron Johnson and Reps. Glenn Grothman, Bryan Steil, Fitzgerald, and Tiffany all making visits to Mexico’s border. In addition, Democrat Reps. Mark Pocan and Gwen Moore plus Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher visited the border during the Trump administration.
Pocan visited in 2018; Gallagher and Moore made the trip in 2019. Western Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Ron Kind has not visited the border during his time in office. Sen. Tammy Baldwin did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether she had visited.
After his trip to the border last week, Tiffany said President Biden is not protecting the border, but “intentionally erasing it” and charged the Biden administration with “empowering drug and human traffickers” by lifting Title 42.
The Minocqua Republican traveled to the city of Yuma and Pinal County in Arizona to meet with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. Tiffany also met with Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, an ally of former President Trump.
Before the mid-April trip, Tiffany visited Arizona in 2020 to meet with ranchers, sheriffs and border patrol officials in Cochise County to discuss border security and ways to combat drug trafficking. He also made two Texas trips in 2021: first to McAllen, a city in southern Texas, and then to the Rio Grande Valley.
Although the Mexican border is nearly 2,000 miles from Wisconsin, Wisconsin Republicans like Tiffany have tied immigration to issues such as human trafficking and illegal drugs like fentanyl.
Tiffany said the “crisis” is “coming through Arizona’s front yard and ending up in Wisconsin’s backyard.”
Steil told WisPolitics.com that lifting Title 42 would be a “move in the wrong direction” and lead to a “dramatic and significant increase” in the number of adult migrants coming into the country.
The Janesville Republican has visited the border twice: first in 2019 with stops in New Mexico and Texas, and then another visit to Texas in 2021. Steil said he doesn’t have set plans to return to the border but might make another trip.
“My biggest concern of all is the illicit fentanyl that’s coming into our country that’s killing thousands of people, even here in the state of Wisconsin — hundreds of people here in the state of Wisconsin,” Steil said.
According to the most recent data available from the State Department of Health Services, 1,051 Wisconsinites died of overdoses involving synthetic opioids — including fentanyl — in 2020. The data include drug overdose deaths where fentanyl was found in the deceased’s system. DHS is still finalizing the data for 2021. The numbers have increased over the years from 460 synthetic opioid deaths in 2017, to 504 in 2018 and 651 in 2019.
Gallagher last visited the border in 2019. The Allouez Republican told WisPolitics.com that President Biden’s push to lift Title 42 would only worsen matters at the border.
“Between trying to repeal the Trump administration’s common-sense Mexico policy, rescinding Title 42, and flirting with the idea of clearing hundreds of thousands of cases from the immigration court backlog, the president has created a perfect storm in which illegal immigrants can come to the country, get a court date, and never have to show up because immigration judges cannot enforce discipline in the system,” he said. “This is crazy.”
Gallagher earlier announced a series of bills he says would help border issues. The legislation would bar members of cartels from coming into the United States, create a security team focused on combating illegal gun trafficking, and give immigration judges the ability to impose fines on those in contempt of court, among other things.
Grothman told WisPolitics.com he’s concerned that lifting Title 42 could lead to what he called the end of the United States as we know it, and added lifting the policy would send a message the United States is a “weak” country with open borders.
“I think right now, as long as we have Title 42, some people from other countries stay here because they know some people are turned around,” he said. “The day we get rid of that, there’ll be a candy bar at the door and really the end of the United States of America.”
The Glenbeulah Republican said lifting the policy would bring many immigrants that the U.S. couldn’t afford. He also raised concerns that immigrants crossing the border could increase the spread of COVID-19.
“So I think the idea that we just say ‘devil may care anybody who comes here’ is a reckless thing to do, and for that reason, [Title 42] should be extended as well,” he said.
But the Biden administration’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, has suggested that Republicans are engaging in an election-year anti-immigration ploy. In late April, Secretary Mayorkas released a plan for the likely increase in migration into the country once the Title 42 is no longer in place.
The Biden plan includes such actions as adding more customs and border protection officers along the border; increasing efficiency at border facilities; and targeting transnational criminal organizations and smugglers aiming to bring drugs into the country.
The report states the Biden administration inherited a “broken and dismantled immigration system” and acknowledges a likely strain on that system with an influx of migrants. However, the report states, that the immigration system is one that “only Congress can fix.”
Rep. Mark Pocan appeared on MSNBC this month and said he feels Title 42 had more to do with extending Trump’s border policies to prevent more immigrants from coming into the country.
“Title 42 had, I think, far less to do with COVID, and a lot more to do with an extension of the wall and, all of the other really divisive, hateful rhetoric that Donald Trump and some Republicans put forward,” he said.
The Madison-area Democrat added accepting refugees into the United States would be emblematic of the county’s history.
“I think this is the right move so we can allow people who have legitimate asylum claims to be able to legitimately be refugees in this country like we have done for a very long time, and as we should continue to do as the greatest democracy on the planet,” he said.
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The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at WisPolitics.com, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.