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53 people are dead. Politics as usual.

Our broken and enforcement-centric border policies guarantee that people will die.
Image: Aerial view showing law enforcement officers investigating a tractor trailer.
In this aerial view, members of law enforcement investigate a tractor trailer at least 53 people died in San Antonio, Texas on June 27, 2022.Jordan Vonderhaar / Getty Images

In a heartless and blatantly hypocritical response to the deaths of at least 53 people inside an abandoned truck in San Antonio, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas singled out President Joe Biden and what he called Biden’s “open border” policies. Abbott is the latest example of the way politicians from both sides of the ideological spectrum dehumanize migrants and refuse to put a human face on the countless migrant lives lost, not just this past week in San Antonio, but over decades.

Between 1998 and 2020, more than 8,000 migrants died in the Southwest Border Sector.

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, from 1998 to 2020, when two Democrats and two Republicans held the White House, more than 8,000 migrants died in the Southwest Border Sector. A United Nations agency estimated that 650 migrants died in the border region in 2021. Advocacy groups have also chronicled stories of neglect by U.S. Border Patrol toward migrants. Migrants dying trying to cross our southern border has been a national scandal for more than two decades. Blaming Biden is too simple. Where was Abbott’s outrage during the Donald Trump and George W. Bush administrations?

To far too many people in the United States, migration is just a statistic or a national security issue to be handled by law enforcement with no regard for the reasons people migrate. During the administration of former President Bill Clinton, migration was greatly criminalized with promises of a “secure border.” Subsequent administrations followed suit, with the Trump administration purposely pushing those policies to the extreme. While Biden has tried to change some of that, the current system is still enforcement-centric and broken.

By its design, people will die.

As one migrant advocate told NBC News this week, “This tragedy is the inevitable result of migration policies on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border that focus on deterrence rather than managing migration from a common-sense, humanitarian perspective. More death and despair will follow if we continue down this route."

Those most likely to suffer or die are migrants who see such hope and promise in the United States.

Yes, it is true that border encounters are at their highest levels in more than 20 years, but to say this is because of a weak Democratic Party is not accurate. The opposite is true. Encounters are at their highest levels because border officials are enforcing the law, which means a Republican such as Abbott has more in common with Biden on immigration policy than he can politically admit.

Biden is president, but Title 42, a border restriction policy that Trump initiated, is a major Trump policy that remains in effect. And until Thursday, Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, requiring people seeking asylum to stay on that side of the border, remained in effect.

Biden has opposed that policy, and the Supreme Court gave him a 5-4 win Thursday. Chief Justice John Roberts, in an opinion for the majority, wrote, “Nothing prevents an agency from under taking new judgment against its original action.” With that ruling, the Supreme Court sent Biden’s attempt to end the policy to a lower court, which will consider the administration’s memo ending the policy.

Even if Thursday’s Supreme Court victory results in an official end to that Trump policy, Biden will still be left with other immigration challenges. Ten years of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is still being challenged in courts, while Biden’s Inauguration Day promise to oversee comprehensive immigration reform has gone nowhere.

The issue of migration has always been racialized and manipulated for political purposes. Politicians such as Abbott never acknowledge that point or acknowledge that Texas has an immigration history grounded in white supremacy and xenophobia.

Abbott’s attack on Biden is his attempt to use 53 deaths for his political gain.

In fact, Abbott’s attack on Biden is his attempt to use 53 deaths for political gain. In the middle of a re-election campaign against Democrat Beto O’Rourke, Abbott has stumbled in his attempt to defend the response of law enforcement in Uvalde to the gunman who killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School. He has responded to last week’s historic Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade with contempt for women and their safety. The San Antonio migrant tragedy provided Abbott with the opportunity to make a political pivot, to earn some points back and divert media coverage away from his previous missteps.

While there is real national outrage over the Uvalde shooting and the end of Roe, views about migrants and migration never reach similar levels. That is why the White House’s official statement about the San Antonio tragedy wasn't bold or even sympathetic. Promises to end smuggling and human trafficking are just that: empty words we’ve heard before that have rarely led to any real change. However, the Los Angeles Declaration, which was orchestrated by the Biden administration at the Summit of the Americas and involves a regional partnership, does try to address human trafficking and smuggling.

Nonetheless, Biden is missing a major opportunity to humanize migrants by shining a light on the lives lost and the reasons why people have been making the dangerous and desperate decision to be smuggled. Instead, we get thoughts and prayers, with vows to make enforcement even tougher.

What Biden is doing sounds exactly like what Abbott wants, but Republicans have an uncanny way of scoring points by simplifying the debate. Leave it to the GOP to own the migration issue in this country in part by falsely painting Democrats as their complete opposite when on the topic of immigration, many Democrats are Republican-lite.

Perhaps that’s why Biden doesn’t really fight back. He comes from a world where political compromise on migration is achievable. Bipartisan gun legislation — however imperfect — passed Congress weeks after Uvalde. The problem is, there’s not that same urgency regarding immigration.

Also, as the past 18 months have shown, the Biden immigration agenda has been underwhelming. The narrative from Republicans is clear: Immigration is bad for the country. There is no clarity or vision in the Democrats’ narrative that counters the Republicans’ extreme position.

On the topic of immigration, many Democrats are Republican-lite.

As a result, leaders like Biden appear hesitant to challenge Republicans like Abbott head on. They can start by acknowledging how bipartisan U.S. migration enforcement has truly been, how it has led to tragedy upon tragedy for real people with real lives, real families and real dreams. The end result should be a more robust admission that migration can help secure the future of this country. The economic benefits are clear, but so are the moral ones.

The United States is still a beacon of freedom and hope for the world. The people who died inside that truck left in San Antonio were following that beacon, and it cost them their lives. There is a lot of blame to spread around, but blaming one president without addressing history, without acknowledging this country's inaction in response to the migrant crisis, just cheapens the discussion.