Hobbs, Washington Democrats signal new approach to border, but bussing continues

Hobbs, Washington Democrats signal new approach to border, but bussing continues

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Two hydraulic excavators operated by AshBritt Management & Logistics remove shipping containers on Jan. 3 that were used to fill a gap in the border fence between the United States and Mexico near Morelos Dam along the South Yuma Levee Road between County 8th Street and County 8 1/2 Street in Yuma. Changes are afoot at the Arizona-Mexico border as trucks haul away these containers set up by former Gov. Doug Ducey, while Gov. Katie Hobbs outlines a new approach to border security and immigration. (Randy Hoeft/The Yuma Sun via AP)

Major changes are afoot at the Arizona-Mexico border.

Trucks haul away shipping containers set up by former Gov. Doug Ducey, Gov. Katie Hobbs outlines a new approach to border security and immigration, and President Joe Biden’s administration takes a more aggressive stance toward immigration enforcement.

In her State of the State Address on Jan. 9, Hobbs offered vague promises, saying “(w)e must take a holistic, realistic, and humane approach to help solve this issue.”

At the same time, she stressed that her approach would depart from Ducey’s.

“Arizona voters told us in November they don’t want or need political stunts designed solely to garner sensationalist TV coverage and generate social media posts,” she said – a reference to some of the headline-grabbing actions Ducey took at the border.

Last year, Ducey’s moves included busing migrants from Arizona to Washington, D.C., and, beginning in August, constructing a makeshift border barrier from shipping containers. Hobbs has also said she’ll consider discontinuing the Border Strike Force, a funding program Ducey initiated that distributed state money to law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Public Safety.

The shipping containers – perhaps the most tangible artifact of Ducey’s border agenda in his final term – are on the way out.

In a lawsuit last year, the federal government forced Arizona to agree to take the containers down, since the state had put them on federal land without authorization. The removal work is still underway, but it will leave behind some wide roads cut out of the borderlands where the containers were installed, as well as a hefty price tag. The cost of installation and removal of the containers will come to more than $200 million, according to official estimates.

With that symbol of the former governor’s agenda coming down, what remains to be seen is the new path Hobbs will carve out.

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Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs delivers her State of the State address on Jan. 9. During her speech, Hobbs hinted at a rebalancing between law enforcement and other border-related priorities. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

In her first days in office, she has taken something of a middle path on another of the controversial initiatives Ducey pursued – the migrant busing program, which Ducey started following a similar move by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Hobbs administration is still sending migrants that arrive in Arizona border towns to other destinations, Josselyn Berry, a spokeswoman for the governor, said on Jan. 11. But she said the program was now sending migrants to U.S. cities where they have a place to stay, making the program “more humane and fiscally responsible” while still serving to “alleviate” the burden that the state’s border towns face in dealing with migrants.

“These people are coming into the country and they’re seeking asylum and they’ve been able to find sponsors,” Berry said. “And instead of sending them all to DC, where they might not necessarily have their sponsors or want to go, we are connecting them to their sponsors.”

In the State of the State Address, Hobbs hinted at a rebalancing between law enforcement and other border-related priorities. Her approach, the governor said, “means supporting sheriffs and local law enforcement in impacted communities – and it also means supporting community centers and hospitals.”

She did make a concrete commitment to Arizonans who came to the state from another country. Her proposed budget will put $40 million into a scholarship program for students at state universities “regardless of immigration status,” she said.

One indicator of where Hobbs is heading on border issues could come from Washington, where Democrats have changed their tune on immigration since President Joe Biden’s election in 2020.

On the campaign trail, Biden promised “not… another foot” of border wall construction under his watch. But it didn’t take long for that promise to fall by the wayside. In 2021, the Biden administration said it would close some gaps in the wall that had been left after contractors abruptly stopped work in January of that year after Biden took over from former President Donald Trump.

Now, the administration is poised to go even further, specifically in Arizona.

This week, the Department of Homeland Security was set to begin construction work to close a gap in the border fence at the Morelos Dam, a site near Yuma that’s seen large numbers of migrant crossings. The federal agency announced plans for that project last summer.

And on a national level, the Biden administration last week rolled out new policies that effectively amount to a crackdown on unauthorized migration and could drastically reduce the number of migrants officially eligible for U.S. asylum.

The measures include a policy against providing asylum protections to migrants who don’t enter through official ports of entry – in other words, those who make their way into the United States through the vast stretches of desert between official border crossings. And there’s another measure akin to the Trump-era “transit ban” that renders migrants ineligible for U.S. asylum unless they’ve already been denied asylum protections in another country.

The requirement that asylum-seekers enter through a port of entry could have a particularly significant impact, given that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has in the past limited the number of asylum-seeking migrants who can go through the ports. The Biden administration officially ended the “metering” policy, but reports indicate that it may still be in use in some places, including in southern Arizona.

So, will Hobbs follow the lead of Washington Democrats, pivoting toward more restrictive immigration policies than those traditionally advocated by the party?

One clue could come from her reaction to the Biden administration’s latest moves.

Speaking to reporters on Jan. 9 about the new policies, she said, “I’m very encouraged by this seeming progress.”