Republicans are using impeachment as a political distraction.
US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas holds a press conference at a US Border Patrol station on January 08, 2024 in Eagle Pass, Texas. John Moore/Getty Images Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.
For the second time this term, Republicans are pursuing an impeachment process with no evidence to justify it. This time, however, they might actually be able to impeach their target: Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, a Biden administration official they’re trying to scapegoat on the issue of immigration.
If a House vote proceeds on Tuesday evening as expected, and if House Republicans stick together, Mayorkas will become the first cabinet official to be impeached in 148 years. The two articles of impeachment he faces accuse Mayorkas of failing to enforce existing immigration laws and obstructing House Republicans’ investigation into Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policies. After the vote, the process will head to the Democrat-led Senate for a trial, which is poised to result in a speedy Mayorkas acquittal, if there is a trial at all.
As DHS secretary, Mayorkas oversees US border enforcement and immigration policies including the asylum process and detention. Because of his role, Republicans see him as an obvious official to blame for their grievances with an influx of crossings at the southern border.
The only problem? Much as is the case with President Joe Biden’s impeachment inquiry, they’ve provided no evidence of any “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the Constitutional threshold that’s historically been used for impeachment. As in Biden’s case, they’ve also failed to scrape together much proof of Mayorkas’s wrongdoing at all.
Additionally, it is Congress — and not Mayorkas — that is at fault for many of the gaps in the US immigration system, since lawmakers must approve appropriations in order to fund new programs or fresh policies that address existing holes. There has been little progress on real reform, however, for years. And while a bipartisan group of senators released an immigration proposal on Sunday, its prospects are looking grim given former President Donald Trump’s opposition to the idea of it.
Impeachment, and piling blame on the Biden administration, is ultimately a potent way of keeping voters’ focus on the issue of immigration in an election year. Republicans’ base voters are highly energized by this issue, though Democrats and independents have ranked it highly in recent polls as among their top concerns as well.
All of that has left Democrats dismissing the impeachment as politically motivated and as counterprogramming meant to distract from the myriad legal troubles likely GOP nominee Donald Trump faces.
Despite the fact that Mayorkas’s impeachment trial will be dead on arrival in the Senate (meaning there’s virtually no chance he’ll be removed from office), House Republicans’ impeachment push helps achieve their objective of stirring up public scrutiny of Biden and keeping up their attacks on his immigration proposals. Additionally, it sets a shocking precedent for a politicized impeachment process, which lawmakers may well continue to use in the future.
There’s not much there there
Though the vote is likely to pass on party lines if it does at all, impeaching Mayorkas has been polarizing even among Republicans due to the lack of proof.
“They’re taking a fast track to using impeachment without doing their homework,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), a more moderate lawmaker, previously told The Hill. House Rep. Ken Buck, one of the last GOP holdouts and a Freedom Caucus member, also condemned the dearth of evidence the party offered. “This just isn’t an impeachable offense,” Buck told The Hill.
The first impeachment article accuses Mayorkas of not adequately enforcing US border security laws, noting that he has not detained people at the border after they apply for asylum. Typically, people are released as they await a trial, a process that can take months or years. That’s in line with how administrations have long handled this issue — including during parts of Trump’s past administration.
The second article alleges that Mayorkas has not sufficiently complied with the House’s investigation into DHS, though the secretary has said he’s testified seven times in front of lawmakers and responded to countless document requests.
Legal experts have said that the House’s case is very thin. “Dislike of a president’s policy is certainly not one of [the grounds for impeachment],” Frank Bowman, a University of Missouri School of Law professor emeritus, previously testified in Congress.
Mayorkas has penned a seven-page letter defending himself and calling the accusations baseless. “You claim that we have failed to enforce our immigration laws,” he writes. “That is false.”
The impeachment is a strategic political distraction
Ultimately, the impeachment push is not about the substance of the allegations so much as the political purpose it serves for the GOP.
Given the upcoming presidential election, Republicans have been eager to stress the issue of immigration since it’s such a top subject for their base and because they’re historically seen as more trustworthy on this issue than Democrats are. According to polling in Iowa and New Hampshire, immigration was the top issue for about 40 percent of GOP voters in both early states, followed by the economy and jobs.
A September 2023 NBC News poll, and others in the past, found that more voters of all ideological backgrounds think Republicans would do a better job on border security and immigration.
The GOP’s focus on this subject may be resonating more this year because of growing global displacement and the increase in migrant crossings the US has experienced at the southern border. In fiscal year 2023, the US had a record-breaking number of apprehensions at the southern border because a growing number of migrants are fleeing conflict and poverty in their home countries.
Republicans — including the governors of Texas and Florida — have also sought to draw attention to this surge in migration by busing and flying migrants to Democrat-led cities like New York City and Chicago that have scrambled to provide public services and shelter. Those efforts have increased awareness about this shift in migration in communities outside of the border and led prominent state and local Democrats to call for more federal resources.
“I think that in the past, what happens at the border is very much divorced from the lives of everyday Americans,” says Andrew Arthur, a policy fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank. “But as we’ve seen those impacts begin to flow to big cities, be it New York or Chicago or Denver … people are starting to see that this has physical impacts that are being foisted on the cities and states for what is ultimately a federal responsibility.”
On top of keeping the issue of immigration front and center, Republicans have also long sought to weaponize attacks and investigations into the Biden administration as a way to distract from the issues of their own likely presidential candidate.
Per research from political scientists Douglas Kriner and Eric Schickler, this has been helpful in the past, denting presidents’ approval ratings. The researchers found, for example, that if lawmakers spent 20 days per month on investigative hearings, the president’s approval rating would see a commensurate decline of 2.5 percent in that time.
In anticipation of this year’s campaigns, a Mayorkas impeachment gives the GOP fodder to bring up in ads and an opportunity to attack the Biden presidency as they try to influence voters in their efforts to keep the House and take back the Senate and White House.