Column: Kamala Harris has two big problems at the southern border. Texas is one of them

A child holds onto a woman's arm after being released from U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody in Texas.
A child holds onto a woman’s arm after being released on March 17 from U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody in Brownsville, Texas.

(Associated Press)

Vice President Kamala Harris has been asked by President Biden to oversee the administration’s response to the growing migrant crisis at the border. But there’s a second border crisis the administration needs to be worried about as well.

Republicans are targeting five House seats currently being held by Democrats in Texas. One of those targets, Rep. Filemon Vela, announced on Monday that he would not seek reelection in the 2022 midterm, following a similar announcement by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, Democrat of Arizona.

Kirkpatrick’s district in southeastern Arizona has been trending blue, so holding onto that seat is not a huge challenge. It’s a very different story with Vela’s 300-mile-long district in southern Texas.


This was made clear in November when President Biden was only able to win Vela’s district by 4 points after Hillary Clinton carried the district by 22 points in 2016.

In fact, despite all of the “Cancun Cruz” jokes and dreams of Texas flipping blue, the reality is the southern part of the state — the region most affected by the current migrant crisis and other border issues — has been hemorrhaging Democratic support for years.

This partially explains the optimism among Republican leadership about the Lone Star State. I say partially because the impact gerrymandering has on elections in Texas cannot be emphasized enough. Despite making up 41% of the state’s population, white Texans make up 61% of lawmakers in the state House and Senate, according to the Texas Tribune. So while Latinos have outpaced their white counterparts in growth by nearly 4-to-1 since 2010, the state’s political power does not reflect the demographic shift.

Besides Vela, Rep. Vicente Gonzalez won reelection by just 3 points in his south Texas district in 2020 while Biden squeaked by with 2 points. With Texas expected to gain three, and perhaps even four, House seats because of its population increase, and with state Republicans redrawing district lines, Democrats could lose control of the House largely from Texas alone.

You probably remember what happened to President Obama’s political mojo after the 2010 midterm election. That outcome — in which Democrats lost control of the House — wasn’t completely out of nowhere. As FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, “since the end of World War II, the presidential party has lost an average of 27 House seats in midterm elections” — a margin that would certainly be enough for the Republicans to retake the House.

If Biden wants any chance to blunt that risk, then Harris needs to find a way to address the migrant issue without alienating more southern Texans. A job, mind you, made more difficult after Biden revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and halted fracking on federal lands.


It was a pair of moves that were celebrated nationally by progressives wanting the White House to do more about climate change but prompted a handful of Texas Democrats to split with Biden because of the perceived impact the moves had on energy jobs. Despite a lot of focus on racial justice in the 2020 public discussion, the economy and local jobs remain a powerful factor, and about a third of Latinos faithfully vote Republican.

In 2008, John McCain won 31% of the Latino vote; in 2012, Mitt Romney won 27%; in 2016 Trump won 28% and increased that number to about 32% in 2020. And while the voting bloc is far from monolithic — the term “Latino voter” is misguided at best — it is clear millions of people of color look past off-putting GOP rhetoric and instead find promise in the party’s emphasis on jobs and the economy. Even with the party of Trump.

Harris can attempt to conduct a healthy discussion about how the U.S. government exacerbated what was already a difficult situation for poor people living in certain parts of Mexico and Central America. Maybe point out how the Reagan administration’s narcoterrorism policies and support of the Contras in Nicaragua helped destabilize the region, laying the foundation for an ecosystem saturated in drug-related gang violence and political corruption.

As a father, it shakes me to my core when I think about the level of desperation parents in Central American countries must have felt in deciding to send their children off alone or with strangers to a foreign land hundreds of miles away because it was safer than staying home.

But as an American, I also know that that kind of nuanced conversation will not happen because we don’t do shades of gray well. Plus, we don’t like to admit fault as demonstrated by the Republican response to President Obama acknowledging some of America’s foreign policy mistakes during his first term. They called it an apology tour with a sanctimonious tone that suggested we had nothing to apologize for, despite clearly having things to apologize for.

So how do we propose to work with foreign governments to resolve the migrant issue — an essential aspect to the task Harris faces — when we can’t even admit our role in creating it?


And if we do acknowledge our role in this catastrophe, I don’t think enough people will care. At least not the people who live near the border and feel their concerns have either been ignored or deemed retrograde. This is not to say that these discussions about the border are not smothered in racism. But that’s not the only thing at play here.

Harris must not only find a solution to the immediate border crisis, she has to do it in a way that addresses the discontent that’s quietly feeding the other looming problem. The one that threatens to not only derail the legislative momentum the Biden administration currently has but damage any designs she may have in winning the White House herself one day.