May 22, 2024
Porous US-Mexico border at issue in increasingly competitive New Mexico governor's race.

The film and photo images are familiar. Shady, hard-to-make-out figures run through the darkness to cross illegally into the United States from Mexico. Or perhaps they’re stealthily crossing a shallow point of the Rio Grande by boat under cover of night.

Those illegal entries are filmed mostly in Arizona and Texas. But illegal immigration is no less of a problem in the state in between: New Mexico. Colloquially known as the Land of Enchantment, it’s been anything but for ranchers and other residents near the U.S.-Mexico border. “Ranchers along the border are reporting groups of up to 20 illegal immigrants crossing over onto their lands, armed with automatic weapons and drugs,” said New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association President Randell Major earlier this year.

Now the New Mexico Republican gubernatorial nominee, Mark Ronchetti, is talking up border security big time in his bid against Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. It’s a race political handicappers see as a potential Nov. 8 upset in a state that has been getting bluer in recent years.

Border security is a familiar Republican campaign issue outside of New Mexico. Within striking distance of majorities in the House and the Senate, GOP candidates far from the Southwest routinely knock the border control efforts of President Joe Biden’s administration — particularly after Donald Trump in 2016 won the presidency in one of the biggest upsets in American political history by emphasizing the need for border security.

Government statistics help fuel their political case. The Border Patrol said that it had more than 1.6 million encounters with illegal immigrants along the southern border in fiscal year 2021, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s more than quadruple the number of the prior fiscal year and the highest annual total on record.

There’s a simple reason New Mexico’s border situation doesn’t get as much attention as Arizona to the west and Texas to the east: Democrats are in full control of the state’s government and don’t want to discuss it.

News of illegal border crossings in Arizona and Texas reflects the Republicans’ control of their state governments. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, along with state legislators and GOP members of Congress (plus some Democrats), make border security a first-tier political issue.

That was the case in California, too, during Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1991-99 tenure. Wilson famously pushed Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure passed by California voters that aimed to deny public services to illegal immigrants. Since Wilson left the political scene, though, Democrats have largely dominated state politics. (Biden in 2020 beat Trump in the Golden State by a nearly 2-1 margin.) That means illegal immigration has been a scant concern for state lawmakers despite the political shadow the issue casts in many other parts of the country.

It’s largely been that way in New Mexico, too, at least since Lujan Grisham in 2019 succeeded a Republican governor, with both chambers of the legislature remaining firmly under firm Democratic control.

Ronchetti now is now making immigration a campaign trail staple.

“Mark will order the National Guard to the border, eliminate the sanctuary policies that hide illegal immigrants who commit crimes from federal immigration officials, and do away with other policies that encourage illegal immigration, such as providing taxpayer-funded stimulus checks to illegal immigrants,” reads Ronchetti’s campaign website.

Additionally, “Mark will also create a Border Strike Force within New Mexico’s Department of Public Safety, modeled after a similar and successful initiative in Arizona. It will target border-related crimes, such as cracking down on organized drug trafficking, gun smuggling, human smuggling, stolen vehicles, and violent criminal apprehensions. The Border Strike Force will work with law enforcement agencies at all levels of government to disrupt the cartel’s criminal activity.”

Lujan Grisham’s campaign has pushed back on the notion that her administration has ignored problems at the border. The campaign has cited a June 14 letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas requesting the federal government to delay planned or expanded efforts to transport illegal immigrants to New Mexico. Doing so, the governor said, “would dramatically affect the state’s capacity to provide ongoing humanitarian assistance to wildfire relief efforts.”

There is an additional reason New Mexico attracts less notice for illegal crossovers than its neighbors — federal agency classifications that can keep the state’s profile low when it comes to illegal immigration. There are no U.S. Customs and Border Protection sectors in New Mexico, the fifth-largest state by land mass at 121,365 square miles. Texas has multiple border sectors, along with Arizona and California. Even Vermont, the seventh smallest state, at 9,249 square miles, has its own sector up north along the U.S. border with Canada.

There are three border crossings in New Mexico, compared to six in California, six in Arizona, and 20 in Texas, even though at 179.5 miles, New Mexico’s border with Mexico is longer than that of California, at 140 miles.

That lesser amount of federal border resources put into New Mexico has become a major campaign focal point for Ronchetti. New Mexico has to pick up the slack from the federal authorities, argues Ronchetti, a former television weatherman who was the 2020 New Mexico GOP Senate nominee, losing to then-Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) by a 6.1-percentage-point margin.

Ronchetti is up against an experienced candidate in Lujan Grisham, who won the New Mexico governorship in 2018 after six years in the House, representing the state’s Albuquerque-area 1st Congressional District.

Lujan Grisham, however, may be vulnerable. In addition to taking heat over border policies, Lujan Grisham drew a wave of negative headlines early in the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2020, she was criticized after purchasing jewelry from a store in Albuquerque once she ordered all nonessential businesses to be closed. In response, the governor’s office said the transaction was done remotely and didn’t violate the order.

Now, seeking reelection, Lujan Grisham is in a tighter race than might have been expected in a state where, in 2020, Biden soundly defeated Trump 54% to 43%.

The RealClearPolitics polling average has Lujan Grisham up over Ronchetti by 6.7 points, including a mid-September poll by The Hill/Emerson that had the Democratic governor up by just 5 points.

It’s a race outside conservative groups are keeping an eye on. Late money can make a big difference in a sprawling state where television and radio advertising is relatively cheap. If Ronchetti ousts the governor, he’ll need only look south, toward the border, to know why.

Leave a Reply