Harassing Samaritans on brand for GOP

by Francis Wilkinson

The Republican war on migrants and asylum seekers has been one of the more successful GOP campaigns of recent years if you measure success by volume of vitriol. 

GOP politicians travel repeatedly to the border to provide fresh content for Fox News and to reinforce the “invasion” message whenever hysteria wanes. It seems to work well. In an NPR/Ipsos poll last summer, a slight majority of Americans agreed that it’s either “completely” or “somewhat” true that an “invasion” is under way at the U.S.-Mexico border. And, of course, Republicans speak so frequently of an “open border” that millions of Americans believe such a thing exists. 

According to a Bloomberg Government report last week, congressional Republicans are now expanding their targets beyond migrants (and Democrats) to include the humanitarian groups that work along the border. Some of the groups, including religious charities, receive federal funds to help cover the cost of providing food and shelter for people, including children, who have neither. Often, the groups receive migrants directly from federal officials after they have been processed. 

Republican Rep. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin said that he wants Catholic Charities USA and other groups to testify before Congress about “what they’re doing down on the border to facilitate this illegal immigration.”  

This isn’t Tiffany’s first demagogue rodeo. He was one of four GOP House members who signed a Dec. 14, 2022, letter to Catholic Charities accusing the group (is it still necessary to add the phrase “without evidence” when discussing allegations by House Republicans?) of misusing public funds and possibly committing federal crimes. The letter instructed Catholic Charities to preserve documents and communications in preparation for an investigation. 

Curiously, on the same day that Tiffany and his cohorts were seeking to intimidate Catholic Charities, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, similarly demanding an investigation of Good Samaritan groups. “There have been recent reports that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may have assisted with illegal border crossings near El Paso,” Abbott wrote to Paxton, whose impeachment trial for corruption is scheduled for September. “We further understand NGOs may be engaged in unlawfully orchestrating other border crossings through activities on both sides of the border, including in sectors other than El Paso.”  

The Texas Tribune tried to locate Abbott’s mysteriously unspecified “reports” of NGOs engaging in human trafficking. The Tribune found one, sort of. It was published by a news organization that recently paid $787.5 million in a legal settlement stemming from its habit of deliberately disseminating lies. But even the Fox News report cited by the Tribune made no claim that NGOs were engaging in illegal activity. It said only that police on the Mexican side of the border had released migrants to various NGOs in Mexico. “The migrants then walked from the non-governmental organizations and crossed illegally into El Paso,” Fox reported. 

Immigration is a vexing issue for people of good will. It’s well-nigh impossible to make progress with so many people of bad faith. Yet whatever harms Abbott and Tiffany and their co-partisans visit on the least of their brothers is apparently not enough to meet the demands of the GOP base, which pines for more pain. This is the ethos of the contemporary GOP, memorably identified by the Trump supporter who complained in 2019 that Trump was “not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”  

“Investigations,” whether into Hunter Biden’s misadventures in drug addiction or the deep state conspiracy to make Trump look like a lifelong crook, occupy an enormous share of the House Republican agenda. They are a logical GOP response to immigration, as well — especially after Title 42, the Covid-era border restriction, recently ended without the chaos that Republicans had hoped for. Republicans have few ideas or solutions for complex issues (unless you consider a wall to be either an idea or a solution). By contrast, you can investigate all day, every day, as House Republicans Jim Jordan and James Comer do, with a threadbare conscience as your only constraint. 

Unlike House Republicans, Catholic Charities and other groups have been working on immigration for years, dealing in raw complexities rather than Fox News soundbites. “People who think that a warm bowl of soup is why these families flee to the U.S. have really no concept of the circumstances they’re fleeing,” the head of a refugee services organization told Bloomberg Government reporter Ellen M. Gilmer. No doubt these groups are occasionally fooled by grifters. But surely not as often as Republican voters are. 

Harassing Good Samaritans is certainly consistent with GOP politics. But it might ultimately prove too degrading even for the party of Jordan and Comer. Another round of clueless legislators asking dim questions of knowledgeable witnesses is unlikely to produce the partisan high that keeps the House GOP fired up and ready to go. Perhaps it’s time for another photo op of Republican politicians drifting haplessly on the Rio Grande, staring strongly, very strongly, at the foreign side while a Fox News camera captures the pathos in it all its tawdry glory. 

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy.