Editor’s note: The graphic in this column has been updated to reflect border crossing data through November 2021.
U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn returned from a March 21 trip to the U.S.-Mexico border with an ominous message.
“Until these borders are secure, every town will be a border town, every state, a border state.”
Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator spoke these words during her opening remarks at a virtual press briefing Tuesday about her visit with law enforcement officials in Arizona. She shared her observations about what media reports have deemed a “surge” in undocumented immigration from the Mexican border.
This is not the first-time Blackburn has raised politically-motivated alarms about border security.
Border crossings are rising, but they did last year, too
In an October 2018 guest column in The Tennessean, the senator called an expected caravan of migrants “an invading force.”
The invasion never happened, but her hyperbolic rhetoric helped her comfortably win an open Senate seat against Phil Bredesen, a popular former Democratic governor.
A former eight-term U.S. House of Representatives member, she understands political opportunity. She uses platforms ranging from the Senate floor to cable news programs to relay her message about the need to pass restrictive immigration legislation.
The number of border crossings rose from 78,442 in January to 100,442 in February, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That’s a 28% increase.
However, the greatest number in recent years was 144,116 in May 2019 during the middle of the Trump Administration.
Blackburn also peppered in the need to stop drug trafficking and sex trafficking.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s junior Sen. Bill Hagerty tweeted about the rise of fentanyl seizures in the first five months of fiscal year 2021 as a reason to keep building Trump’s border wall.
Fiscal Year 2021 began on Oct. 1, 2020, for the federal government. Donald Trump was still president; Joe Biden assumed the presidency on Jan. 20.
Border trip amplified pro-hardline views
The crossings, drug and human trafficking are real problems that have faced the United States for some time.
The Trump Administration took a hard line on keeping unauthorized immigrants out and building new and more border fencing, but during his four years in office, illegal border crossings spiked, a humanitarian crisis of asylum seekers flared and Mexico still refused to pay for the wall.
On Tuesday, Blackburn said law enforcement officials she met with said the border situation has worsened under the two-month-old Biden Administration.
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Biden has stopped construction on the wall, changed some policies and is working on a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants.
That’s red meat for Republicans. Haranguing about public safety and open borders sounds like a playbook for an attempt to retake the House and Senate in 2022.
— Sen. Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) March 21, 2021
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One of Blackburn’s three ideas is being implemented
Other Senate colleagues who have signed on to Blackburn’s Stopping Border Surges Act include GOP senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama and Joni Ernst of Iowa.
At the press briefing, I asked her what were her recommendations.
She suggested three ideas:
Appoint an envoy to work with Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) because so many asylum seekers emanate from there
Return to Trump era immigration policies including building the border wall
End the practice of releasing some asylum seekers into the community while their court dates are pending.
On Wednesday, Biden announced that Vice President Kamala Harris would serve in that envoy role, leading the efforts to stem the rising flow of migrants.
What a reporter at the border says about the situation
I have never reported from the U.S.-Mexico border, but I know journalists who do. On Tuesday, I interviewed Rafael Carranza from our sister publication, The Arizona Republic. He has covered the border since 2009.
“The situation varies from region to region along the borderland,” Carranza told me. “What’s happening in Arizona looks very different from El Paso or South Texas and San Diego.”
“Overall, there’s has been an increase in the number of apprehensions. That’s a good indicator of where migration patterns stand and where they’re headed.”
Carranza said that the crossing figures do not count individuals, but rather individual attempts at crossing.
“That’s in large part why we’re seeing such a large number,” he said. “You have individuals who tried to cross repeatedly. That counts as a statistic. Last month, 25,000 people had attempted to cross once before.”
Although most of the incoming migrants this time are single adult men, the influx of unaccompanied minors and families continues.
A Trump era policy that remains in place under Biden is Title 42, which allows U.S. border agents to expel migrants immediately due to concerns about COVID-19.
COVID-19 diminished capacity to hold asylum seekers. Other challenges include a shortage of immigration judges and a backlog of cases.
“Equally important is what’s happening on the Mexican side,” Carranza said.
People are desperate and are being taken advantage of by smugglers and gangsters south of the border.
In an ideal world, senators would work in a bipartisan manner to pay for border security, functional asylum processing and incentives to Northern Triangle nations to keep people from making the dangerous trek to the U.S.
Instead, some are willing to scare Americans more than 1,000 miles from the southern border just to score cheap political points.
David Plazas is the director of opinion and engagement for the USA TODAY Network Tennessee. He is an editorial board member of The Tennessean. He hosts the Tennessee Voices videocast. Call him at (615) 259-8063, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to him at @davidplazas.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Marsha Blackburn knows border fears win elections. Will it work anew?