Republican politicians are blaming President Joe Biden for a deluge of migrants at the Southwestern border. They think his conciliatory policies—suspending deportations, allowing unaccompanied migrant children to stay in the United States, and advocating an eventual path to citizenship—have encouraged thousands of people to pour into the country. Biden has publicly urged asylum-seekers not to come right now, but Republicans say that’s not enough. The only thing migrants will listen to, they argue, is firm prohibition backed by force.
There’s a good case to be made for that kind of firmness. Sometimes, when governments relax policies or enforcement, their pleas for voluntary compliance are ignored. But Republicans don’t apply that argument to their own supporters. The same governors who deride Biden’s border policies are lifting COVID mask mandates in their own states. They insist that in the case of masks, people can be trusted to do the right thing even when the government tells them they no longer have to. At worst, that double standard is political or ethnic. At best, it’s naïve.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has led the Republican attack on Biden. At a press conference last Wednesday, he accused the president of “enticing” child migrants by signaling, through soft border policies, that “if you are an unaccompanied child, you will be allowed to come into the United States.” Abbott connected the border issue to COVID, warning that migrants might bring new variants of the virus into the country.
Abbott shows no such concern, however, about the simplest COVID precaution: wearing masks. Three weeks ago, he lifted his state’s mask mandate, arguing that voluntary compliance would suffice. “We do still recommend that people do wear a mask,” he suggested, but “because everybody knows that, we don’t need a state mandate for it.” In another interview, he said Texans “don’t need government telling them what to do,” since everyone “has made up their own mind about what they’re going to do.”
On Friday, Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona joined the attack on Biden. In a press conference at the border, he decried the influx of migrants, portrayed them as COVID spreaders, and blamed the administration. The president’s lax enforcement policies created “a perception that our borders are open,” said Ducey. He demanded that Biden “deter” further migration by stating firmly that “our borders are not open, and the amnesty law has not changed.”
On COVID, however, Ducey shies away from deterrence. In November, as the virus overwhelmed Arizona’s hospitals, he refused to impose a statewide mask mandate. “I want people to wear masks,” he said, but “what I want to avoid is some of the division and politics that have happened around this issue.” Instead, he proposed an education campaign to ask people to wear masks. In January, as the COVID death count rose, he again refused to impose a mandate. Wearing a mask was the “polite thing to do,” he conceded, but “this isn’t about mandates. It’s about personal responsibility.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas agrees with the criticism of Biden’s border management. “You’ve got to have a stricter border policy, or it’s going to be a humanitarian crisis,” he warned a week ago on Face the Nation. But in the same interview, Hutchinson defended his own plan to lift the mask mandate in Arkansas. “The time in this pandemic for heavy-handed restrictions and mandates [is] going by the wayside, so people can make good judgments,” he argued. On Sunday, Hutchinson told CNN, “People understand the importance of the mask. And I expect, even though we take the mask mandate away, that people will continue to use the mask. … Common sense is going to replace mandates.”
Republicans in Congress apply the same double standard. On Monday, in a Fox News interview, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas encouraged more states to lift their mask mandates. “It’s springtime,” he noted, outlining his justifications for the move. But in the same conversation, he accused Biden of triggering mass migration by sending a “signal to Latin America that our border is wide open.” “Actions speak louder than words,” said Cotton.
Actions do speak louder than words. In this case, the actions of Republican politicians show that their rhetoric about the border is unserious. They apply one philosophy to migrants—clear signals and strict enforcement—and the opposite philosophy to their own supporters. When the debate turns to masks, suddenly they’re the party of “good judgment” and “personal responsibility.”
This faith in voluntary mask compliance is demonstrably unwarranted. Two weeks ago, a Politico/Morning Consult poll asked voters how they would respond “if there were no statewide COVID-19 health precautions (e.g., social distancing, mask mandates) where you lived.” Thirty-eight percent of Republicans said they would still “fully adhere to COVID-19 health precautions,” but 31 percent said they would only somewhat honor the precautions, and another 20 percent said they would ditch them. These answers probably overstate real-world compliance, since poll respondents often give the virtuous answer, not the honest one. Even so, the survey indicated that if mask mandates and other orders were removed, admitted noncompliance among Republicans would jump from 6 percent to at least 26 percent.
You could argue that enforcement is more essential at the border, because unauthorized migrants have shown they’re willing to evade the law, and they aren’t entitled to the same consideration as American citizens. But many people who refuse to wear masks are as defiant as any border crosser. And they’re far more dangerous. COVID has killed more than 47,000 people in Texas, more than 16,000 in Arizona, and more than 5,000 in Arkansas. Last fall, forecasters at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that from September to February, near-universal use of masks could have saved more than 9,000 lives in those three states, plus 120,000 more in the rest of the country.
In many respects, Republicans are right about the situation at the border. It’s a mess. Humane aspirations aren’t enough; we need firm rules and clear signals. But we need that kind of clarity even more to fight a virus that has killed more than half a million Americans. If you’re serious about saving lives and protecting this country, get serious about masks.