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Border securityIf we hire them, they will come: The demand side of border security

By Jay Root, Jolie McCullough, and Julián Aguilar

Published 6 December 2016

A fundamental truth underlies the nation’s collective failure to stop illegal immigration and smuggling over the southern border: The United States demands the cheap labor and drugs. The Texas Legislature’s almost $800 million border security apparatus relies on stopping the supply of uninspected people and drugs. It’s all about boots on the ground, assets in the air, boats in the water. But addressing the country’s demand for cheap labor and drugs? Or its role in supplying the weapons drug cartels and smugglers use to protect their loads? Not so much.

A fundamental truth underlies the nation’s collective failure to stop illegal immigration and smuggling over the southern border: The United States demands the cheap labor and drugs. 

Businessman Thomas McNutt’s run for political office began as a classic tale of an upstart young conservative taking on the Texas political establishment.

It was among the most closely watched primaries for Texas House seats this year, and for good reason: McNutt was mining the same bubbling outrage over the porous border and illegal immigration that fueled the rise of Donald Trump. And his opponent, powerful GOP incumbent Rep. Byron Cook, was a top target of the immigration hardliners.

Cook has been a supporter of the long-standing state policy allowing young undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates. He chairs the important House committee where, in 2011, a ban on so-called sanctuary cities fizzled out amid opposition from major business figures. Then last year, he authored a bill that would have let thousands of people living here illegally drive their vehicles legally. (They still can’t.)

Cook “supports illegal immigrants,” McNutt claimed in a February interview in the Palestine Herald newspaper, right before the two Corsicana businessmen squared off in the March Republican primary.

“I am offering the voters in our district a conservative choice who will fight to stop illegal immigrants from entering our state,’’ he said.

It was a solid political strategy, save for one problem.

The famous company McNutt’s family owns and operates — Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana — had itself hired undocumented immigrants, according to news reports and Texas Tribune interviews. And when some of them began speaking out, the dynamics of the race shifted.

Illegal immigration and border security remained the top issues, but the focus moved from Cook’s voting record to McNutt’s alleged hypocrisy.

“He says he’s for border security,” an announcer mockingly intoned in a negative ad aired against McNutt. “But his bakery hires cheap illegal workers.”

When the smoke cleared on the March 2016 primary, Cook had eked out a victory, winning by a little more than 200 votes.

Not surprisingly, McNutt and the workers see things differently today — each pointing fingers at the other.