James Johnson: Biden’s border crisis is pushing American voters towards Trump

James Johnson is co-founder of JL Partners. He was the Senior Opinion Research and Strategy Adviser to Theresa May as Prime Minister, 2016-2019. 

Last week I drove to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. The drive itself is a surreal experience. Setting out from Tucson, Arizona’s second city, it is a two hour journey through the desert. It starts pleasant enough – the usual wide highways, an observatory perched atop one of the many mountains flanking the road.

But then I pass through Sells, a town in a Native American reservation daubed with banners pleading “No more stolen sisters”, a reference to the disproportionate number of indigenous women who go missing or are murdered each year.

An hour later I am in the tiny pitstop of ‘Why’, with a gas station and ‘Granny’s Mexican Restaurant’. Any assumption this was a whimsical play on the town’s location was soon halted: the town is named after the Y-shaped intersection on which it was built, and placenames must be a minimum of three letters by law.

The road narrows and landscape becomes more alien. This is one of the richest locations for cacti on earth, and they line the road in twisted, sometimes unnatural shapes. It is very Hitchcock: these contortionist sentinels, their arms and limbs splayed everywhere, ominously flanking the road as I near the border with little sense of what to expect.

Finally, arriving at Lukeville, I see it. This part of the border has part of Donald Trump’s 500-mile wall, built during his first term. It is a hulking, brown steel fence, 30 feet tall and one foot thick. You could not squeeze through the gaps, but you can see clearly through to the other side: run-down homes, a Mexican military patrol, more twisted cacti.

Two weeks ago, Fox News captured footage of dozens of migrants crossing through a breach here. Lukeville is just one of many places across the border where such breaches take place.

Let some of the numbers sink in. In February, 140,000 migrants were arrested making such a crossing; in December it hit a monthly record of 250,000. For the whole of 2023, there were 2.4 million encounters at the Southwest border. For contrast, the number of small boats crossings into the United Kingdom in 2023 was 29,000. A friend who is an expert on the border tells me: “It’s like your border with France, but there’s no water and France is Afghanistan”.

The border is set to be the seminal topic at the general election. For the first time, the border and immigration are the top issues for the American public, overtaking the economy in January. Since Joe Biden took office, there have been 6.2 million encounters at the border and 1.7 million known getaways. In 2023, Customs and Border Protection seized 27,000 pounds of fentanyl, enough to kill the entire human population of Planet Earth.

The flow of migrants – both natural and due to Texas bussing arrivals to northern cities – has brought the issue nationwide too. Crime is a major concern, with 35,000 aliens arrested with criminal convictions in 2023. Laws to address it are frozen in Congress; Democrats say Republicans want to deny them a win on the issue, Republicans say Democrat plans are not serious enough. Biden could take executive action but has not yet done so.

There were no visible crossings when I was there. Two teachers were allegedly killed on the Mexican side for not stopping at a cartel checkpoint, which had quietened things down for the day. But I was told the smugglers and fence-cutters were waiting, and so were the migrants: known as ‘bodies’, they are kept in safehouses and then rushed once a breach is made. Nearby a welding machine hummed as two Mexican-American contractors secured a hole made a few days ago.

‘Safehouses’ is too generous a term for the migrant’s experience on the southern side of the border. On the U.S. side, there is the occasional tree with discarded clothing hanging in it. These are known as ‘rape trees’, where women throw their clothes away after they cross, eager to be rid of the clothes they were raped in on the Mexican side. I ask someone stationed at the border whether this is true. “Yes. The smugglers are evil fucks”.

The rest of the road on the U.S. side was strewn with clothing. I saw a set of baby clothes, a blanket, a wooly hat, shirts, some trousers. A couple we saw from Minneapolis had picked up two Ecuador coins, and a handwritten list of phone numbers, no longer needed by whoever had dropped them as they made it to the other side.

However needy many of these people are, American voters question just how much more their own country can take. This is not helped by people coming from more countries than ever, with nationals from as far as India and China on the rise. More Chinese nationals have crossed the border in 2024 than Mexicans. Last week, an image went viral of a Chinese lady crossing the border wearing a Canada Goose jacket while holding an iPhone.

Back in Tucson a day later, I spoke to several Hispanic voters in Tucson. Second and third-generation migrants, they are sympathetic to the immigrant’s plight. But they feel the border must be sealed, that things have gone too far and that instead resources need to be directed towards homeless Americans, “our veterans”, and citizens who need social security.

Much of this sentiment explains why Trump leads in the polls and is at his most competitive yet with Hispanics. Voters back the continued building of the wall, the return of Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, and – as they pine for solutions –deportations of those illegal migrants already here.

Trump has promised the “largest deportation programme in American history”. To citizens it sounds sensible: though the picture would polarize with a second President Trump heading the policy, current polling shows the idea is backed by Republicans, independents, and Democrats alike.

The events at Lukeville and across the southwest will dominate in November. Democrats can navigate it: Tom Suozzi, the winning candidate in a recent New York special election, won by neutralizing Republican attacks on the border by taking a tough stance. But voters feel it happened on Biden’s watch and that failure is dragging him down.

Two days later I pop into a Trump victory rally in Phoenix. He has just won the Arizona primary with 80 per cent of the vote. The top issue in exit polls is immigration. With what I saw and heard on the border, it is not hard to understand why.

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