House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is not only a politician but a politician among politicians. One does not ascend to the most powerful position in the House without being particularly adept at politics even within the world of politics, however clunky that ascent might have been.
So, when Johnson rose to speak on the House floor Wednesday — his first such speech since being elected speaker — and began to talk about immigration, it was through the lens of a politician seeking to effect a political outcome. Yes, everyone who speaks from the House floor is doing so for political purposes, but in this speech, from this person, in this election year and on this subject? Everything was colored by that political intent.
As demonstrated in his word choice.
Johnson’s speech went on at some length, focusing on Republican resistance to new legislation aimed at addressing the border and his party’s efforts to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. To a layperson, his arguments were probably compelling, interweaving condemnation of the Biden administration with data points aimed at supplementing that condemnation.
At one point, for example, Johnson lamented the existing process for arriving immigrants.
Millions of immigrants, he said, were “spending many years in the United States before they’re ever even expected to appear before a judge. Some of them are given a piece of paper that says, we’ll see you in a decade. It’s absurd.”
It is. It is also a function of the strained system that handles asylum claims. There was already an enormous backlog of cases before the recent increase in arrivals; that increase has simply exacerbated the problem. The Biden administration has called for new funding that would allow for more immigration judges, reducing those wait times — and reducing the amount of time that migrants are allowed to remain in the country. Johnson has instead insisted that the administration focus on blocking more people from coming in the first place.
At another point, Johnson unfavorably compared Biden with the man for whom he’d once served as vice president.
“We’ve learned that the Biden administration is now simply … releasing 85 percent of the illegals who come across that border right into the country,” Johnson said. “They’re coming to a neighborhood near you.”
More on that bit of fearmongering in a second. He continued:
“For reference, by the way, if you’re watching the metrics, in 2013, the Obama administration — listen to this — the Obama administration detained 82 percent of illegal aliens. How do we go from detaining 82 percent to releasing 85 percent? It only happens if this is by design. It only happens if it’s an orchestrated, intentional effort by the administration to do exactly that.”
That “by design” line is eyebrow-raising, given the popularity on the right of the conspiracy theory that Democrats are throwing open the entry doors to the country for some putative future political gain. But the numbers are worth considering, too.
We can do a simple bit of math here. There are only so many people you can detain, given limits on space and staffing. (Adding more capacity of this sort is another element of discussions about the border.) In fiscal year 2013, there were about 414,000 people encountered at the border (that is, stopped from entering). In fiscal year 2023, there were nearly 2.5 million, or 2,475,669, to be precise.
Why might Obama have detained 82 percent while Biden released 85 percent? Well, 82 percent of 414,000 is about 340,000. Fifteen percent of 2,475,669 — the detained percentage in 2023, according to Johnson — is about 371,000. That suggests a capacity issue.
But we’re getting somewhat away from the sharpest political element here, the rhetoric encompassed in Johnson’s “neighborhood near you” line. This idea that immigrants are inherently frightening is a key part of the Republican discussion of the border, given that it heightens a sense of urgency and failure regarding the administration.
Johnson described speaking to agents at the border.
“They noted that we are experiencing a surge — listen to this — of military-aged single men who are pouring into our country over the southern border. From adversarial nations, by the way, and from terrorist regimes.”
He said that he was told, too, that 60 to 70 percent of those entering were single men who were “military-aged.”
“These are not huddled masses of families seeking refuge in asylum,” he continued.
It takes very little unpacking to see the frightening veneer that Johnson is applying here. What’s a military-aged man? It’s a relatively young guy who, in another, less politically loaded context, might be called a “working aged” man. It’s all framing: Johnson wants listeners to hear the phrase “military aged” and assume that the immigrants are dangerous and intend to harm Americans. Had he said “working aged,” the reaction would have been very different — and evoked very different, more common perceptions of immigrants.
We’ve heard this term before. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) used it during the last Republican presidential debate. You may be unsurprised to learn that it has been in increasing usage on Fox News as well, particularly on Sean Hannity’s show.
What’s worth noting is that the number of single adults stopped at the border began to increase in 2020, during the Trump administration. It rose steadily until mid-2021, when it hit 120,000 people. Since then, the monthly average of single adults stopped at the border has been 130,000. (In the early part of the Biden administration, that was inflated in part by a policy that quickly deported single adults — allowing them to enter the country more than once in a month.)
In recent months, single adults have made up only about half those stopped at the border, though the average since Biden took office is 64 percent.
Remember that “single adult” doesn’t mean “military-aged male.” It means men and women, ages 18 to 75. There’s little question that most of those entering the United States as individual adults are, in fact, younger men. But even the numbers above are overrepresentative.
Again, Johnson’s trying to make a political point, not simply to convey to the public what’s occurring at the border in impartial terms. So, a 24-year-old guy looking for work who comes into the United States is suddenly lumped into an imaginary army of invaders — bolstering not only Johnson’s rhetoric but the argument of Republicans such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose fight with the federal government over the border is framed in terms of an “invasion.”
Abbott would understandably rather not have those new arrivals described as “people looking for work.”