A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a claim in one of the drafted articles of impeachment referenced Raul Ortiz. The claim referred to Rodney Scott. This article has been corrected.
We are about nine months from the November presidential election, and it is very clear that Republicans seek to use immigration and the border as a central element of their campaigning.
That’s manifested in several ways, including more subtle ones. On Monday, for example, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) insisted on social media that the country’s border policies must result in “ZERO” illegal crossings into the United States. This is not practicable; barring the conversion of every means of entering the country — by land, boat or air — into high-security-prison-style barriers, there will be times that people enter the country without authorization. And people still circumvent prison barriers.
This argument is a way of establishing an impossible standard by which Johnson’s opponents can be criticized. It’s akin to the frequently promoted idea that zero illegal votes should be cast in an election — another demand that is not feasible, or necessary for the protection of elections.
Because immigration is certainly salient — there has been a significant rise in border crossings that is straining federal, state and local governments — and because it is a focus of the often-overheated conversation on the political right, the Republican House speaker can establish this unrealistic baseline. And because of those reasons, Republicans also for months sought to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, applying the most severe available punishment to the person in the Biden administration most responsible for the border.
The result is that, on Tuesday, the Republican-led House Homeland Security Committee held a markup on articles of impeachment targeting Mayorkas. It draws the House nearer to impeachment and a chit to include in campaign mailers — though certainly no closer to Johnson’s goal of zero illegal entries.
We should also consider this effort, though, outside of the context of Mayorkas himself. This impeachment effort is, in substance and practice, a dry run for targeting Biden.
The articles of impeachment under consideration on Tuesday center primarily on three things:
- Under Mayorkas, people who entered the country illegally were released into the United States instead of being detained.
- The number of immigrants apprehended at the border increased.
- Mayorkas used language in defending his job with which Republicans disagree.
There are other claims, too, like that Mayorkas terminated asylum agreements with other countries — but, as noted by Immigration Council policy director Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, that was done by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. But those three are the broad categories.
This is not a strong case, even setting aside the question of whether criticism of how a Cabinet secretary was conducting his job is even impeachable. (A letter signed by legal scholars argues, among other things, that such an action is a breach of the separation of powers.) To the first point, it has long been the case that, particularly when the number of immigrants increases suddenly, the government doesn’t have the resources to address them — including through detention. Data released in November showed that immigrants were more likely to be released during Donald Trump’s administration than Biden’s.
To the second point, there has been an increase in immigration, certainly, which Republicans like to blame on Biden’s policies. That’s meant a surge in apprehensions at the border and a spike in the number of people claiming asylum — triggering a process that is itself under-resourced.
Here is an example of how this is used against Mayorkas.
“During Alejandro N. Mayorkas’s tenure as Secretary of Homeland Security, approximately 450,000 unaccompanied alien children have been encountered at the Southwest border, and the vast majority have been released into the United States,” the draft articles read. “As a result, there has been a dramatic upsurge in migrant children being employed in dangerous and exploitative jobs in the United States.”
The impeachment implies that this would not have happened (assuming for the sake of argument that it did), save Mayorkas being in his position. There are several similar examples presented.
The third point, arguing that Mayorkas lied to Congress by saying things like that the border was secure or under “operational control” as defined under law, is largely subjective. As Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) noted on Tuesday, House Republicans could have tried to bring criminal charges against Mayorkas if they could prove that he’d lied to them. They didn’t.
But here we also get into an interesting area.
The proposed articles of impeachment include a claim that, according to Mayorkas’s “first Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, Alejandro N. Mayorkas ‘summarily rejected’ the ‘multiple options to reduce the illegal entries … through proven programs and consequences’ provided by civil service staff at DHS.”
That refers to Rodney Scott, who Mayorkas inherited from Trump. But Raul Ortiz, appointed under Biden, also testified before the committee, offering some dire assessments of the situation. The committee also heard testimony from multiple chief patrol agents, Border Patrol officials in charge of different sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border, published excerpts of which focused on the strain posed to the Border Patrol given the increase in immigration.
House Democrats, though, have released other excerpts of the chiefs’ testimony that are more positive and that appear to contradict Ortiz’s presentation of what was unfolding in their sectors. As with transcripts of interviews conducted to construct a case for impeachment targeting Biden, a number of the transcripts of the chief patrol agent interviews haven’t been released. Context and complexity are impossible to determine, which, it seems safe to assume, is part of the point.
All of this is instructive. The House may well impeach Mayorkas though there’s zero chance that the Senate would vote to remove him. It will allow Republicans to tell constituents that they’re taking action on immigration and against Biden. But it would also establish acceptance of a framework for targeting Biden: bad argumentation, incomplete evidence, political utility. In each case, even the Republicans’ allies note the lack of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
“I want to be clear: This is not political theater,” Rep. Michael Guest (R-Miss.) insisted during Tuesday’s markup of the articles of impeachment. Good. The baseline we should accept for political theater is ZERO.
That, too, is unattainable.