Republicans have made illegal immigration a top issue in NH — sometimes with misinformation

The 15 National Guard soldiers Gov. Chris Sununu deployed to Texas this month are assisting with border security. Sgt. Connor Decker and soldiers from other states direct a man attempting to enter illegally to an official border crossing. (Courtesy Texas National Guard)

The 15 National Guard soldiers Gov. Chris Sununu deployed to Texas this month are assisting with border security. Sgt. Connor Decker and soldiers from other states direct a man attempting to enter illegally to an official border crossing. (Courtesy Texas National Guard) Courtesy Texas National Guard


New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 04-23-2024 5:22 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu has put nearly $2.3 million into tackling what he calls an illegal immigration crisis on two fronts: $1.4 million for a law enforcement task force along the state’s 58-mile border with Canada, and $850,000 toward this month’s deployment of 15 National Guard troops to Eagle Pass, Texas. 

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers and candidates are making illegal immigration a top issue in the State House and along the campaign trail, often making their case with misinformation and untested anecdotal evidence.

“Every town’s a border town,” they say.

It’s resonating with Granite State voters. Last month, nearly 43 percent of respondents told the UNH Survey Center they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about undocumented migrants consuming state resources, costing taxpayers money, and committing crimes.

But are those concerns backed up by data and facts? Often no, and in some cases data contradicts illegal immigration claims.

Fact-checking immigration claims is tough

The southern border is well over 2,000 miles from New Hampshire. Here’s why the state’s Republicans are making illegal immigration a top campaign issue here:

Last month, 43 percent of Granite Staters polled by the UNH Survey Center said illegal immigration is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem in New Hampshire. That jumped to 83 percent when asked about illegal immigration in the United States. 

They cited the taking of resources from Americans, costs to taxpayers, and crime as their top concerns about people living in the country illegally. 

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Voters hoping to fact-check candidates’ claims are in for a challenge because there’s endless data, and it’s complicated to decipher. 

For example, Republican gubernatorial candidate Chuck Morse of Salem claimed in a campaign email last week that 10 million people have crossed the southern border illegally since President Joe Biden took office. The data contradicts that.

First, U.S. Customs and Border Protection tracks “encounters,” not people, and does not account for people encountered more than once. 

Next, between the start of Biden’s term and March, that agency reported 9.64 million encounters nationwide, with 8 million at the southern border. And, those numbers include people who may go on to be granted asylum.

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a media briefing last week that 70 to 80 percent of asylum seekers clear the first hurdle, which is persuading a border patrol agent they have a credible fear of death, torture, or persecution due to their race, religion, or beliefs. About 40 percent of those people are ultimately granted asylum by a court, he said. 

Here’s what we know about undocumented immigrants in New Hampshire. 

■Since 2000, there have been between 10,000 and 15,000 undocumented immigrants living in the state, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2021, they represented about 1.7 percent of the state’s workforce, primarily in professional settings.

■They cannot get a drivers license or in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

■Neither adults nor children are eligible for Medicaid.

■There appears to be no data that would show how often undocumented immigrants are charged criminally and convicted. If national data is an indication, the percentage is low. 

The CATO Institute, a public policy research organization, reported in 2020 that data collected by the Texas Department of Public Safety showed that the criminal conviction rate of undocumented people in that state was 45 percent below that of those born in the U.S. In February, the institute published another study that found undocumented immigrants in Texas commit homicide at slightly lower rates than native-born Americans, 2.4 percent compared to 2.8 percent.

Americans, not migrants, are smuggling in fentanyl

Sununu cited human trafficking and terrorism as reasons to beef up security at the southern border. Fentanly overdoses prompted him to send New Hampshire Guard soldiers to Texas, he said. In 2022, fentanyl caused 224 of the state’s 463 drug overdose deaths and contributed to many more.

“You can see exactly what is coming from the southern border and trace right up into … virtually every city and town,” he told lawmakers in February, when he asked for $850,000 to deploy the troops to Eagle Pass. “It’s very real. It’s impactful, and it’s affecting families today.” 

Drug smuggling has also driven the debate in the State House when lawmakers take up bills aimed at tightening immigration enforcement. 

Americans, not undocumented migrants, are smuggling fentanyl into the country. 

In 2022, U.S. Sentencing Commission data showed that Americans accounted for nearly 90 percent of convicted fentanyl drug traffickers.

That same year, 96 percent of fentanyl seizures occurred at official ports of entry, not along migration routes between checkpoints, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports analyzed by the Washington Post. And nearly all those seizures – almost 90 percent – occurred in California and Texas. 

The contradiction between facts and talking points has led Democrats to see Sununu’s deployment to Texas – and Republican claims about undocumented migrants – as political stunts.

“I think it is part of former President Trump telling Congress not to pass the bipartisan (immigration) bill because it’s an issue he wants to campaign on,” said Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat who voted against Sununu’s $850,000 request. The border “just seems to get dragged in a lot even when you think the subject matter is not about that. So, I think it’s all part of feeding into former President Trump’s desire to beat up President Biden about this.”

Another year, another sanctuary bill

Sending National Guard soldiers to the Texas border isn’t the state’s only response to the surge in undocumented migrants entering the county. 

House and Senate Republicans are backing a bill now that would prohibit New Hampshire communities from adopting so-called “sanctuary city” policies that prohibit their police from cooperating with federal immigration agencies.  

If history is any indication, the bill, which passed the Senate along party lines in March, may have a tougher fight in the House, where Republicans hold only a seven-seat majority. Even in years when Republicans controlled both chambers, lawmakers have rejected nearly a dozen similar bills since 2006.

Senate Bill 563 would require local police to make their “best effort” to comply with the enforcement of federal immigration law. The bill’s opponents include not just the ACLU of New Hampshire and church leaders but several police chiefs who worry taking on immigration enforcement would undermine their relationships with immigrant communities. 

Sen. Bill Gannon, a Sandown Republican and the bill’s sponsor, sees it differently. He told a House committee Wednesday that the bill is a necessary public safety tool to identify what he called “bad hombres” who’ve committed crimes and are in the country illegally. It’s a phrase former President Donald Trump introduced during a 2016 debate. 

“I’m sure most (undocumented immigrants) are looking for a better life, just like all our grandparents, and great grandparents were,” he said. “And they’re here to raise their families and live the American dream. Unfortunately, they’ve not been vetted.” 

Gannon cited the arrest last year in Rye of a man who had fled Brazil, where he’d been convicted of multiple murders.

“He was working on a painting crew, eating lunch with everyone, going out to restaurants, and driving through my towns,” Gannon said. “If you have individual towns (adopting sanctuary city policies), you’re putting the other towns at risk.” 

Gannon cited Keene and Lebanon as two cities that have adopted policies that say local police officers “shall not cooperate with the federal authorities.” 

That is not wholly accurate.

Keene and Lebanon have adopted broad welcoming policies, not “sanctuary city” policies, said their city managers. Neither policy prohibits the police from cooperating with federal immigration officials in criminal cases. 

“We’ve been accused of harboring terrorists, which is completely untrue,” said Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland, a former police chief in Allenstown. “If people are wanted for terrorism, which is a crime, we are certainly going to detain them, and we’re going to turn them over to the federal authorities.”

What neither city will do is cooperate with federal immigration officials to enforce civil immigration rules, including detaining someone based solely on their immigration status. It is a civil offense – not a crime – to be in the country without documentation unless the person is here after being deported.

Lebanon’s policy also prohibits its police officers from allowing federal immigration authorities to use the station to investigate civil immigration cases. Mulholland, like the police chiefs who penned a letter to senators, said local law enforcement has no legal authority to enforce federal immigration law. 

Mulholland said he would have explained that had he heard from Gannon or any other senator who said the city is impeding the enforcement of federal immigration laws.

“They never asked, ‘What are you doing there?’ he said, “which is very very frustrating when they make allegations of this nature.”

Bulletin writer Annmarie Timmins will be reporting from Eagle Pass, Texas, this week, in collaboration with New Hampshire Public Radio, while shadowing the 15 National Guard soldiers sent by Gov. Chris Sununu to assist with border patrol. You can find her reporting at New Hampshire Bulletin and NHPR, both on air and online.