Border debate moves from Congress to the campaign trail

An undocumented immigrant awaits transport to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center after being detained on July 22, 2014 near Falfurrias, Texas.

John Moore, Getty Images

Members of Congress are slated to return to their home districts by the end of the week, potentially leaving the ongoing border crisis on the back burner until Labor Day. But whether or not Congress can get something done, politicians on this November's ballot are making the situation a campaign issue.

In some states, like Texas, the focus is hardly surprising. Sharing more than 1,200 miles of its border with Mexico, residents of the state have a clear stake in the federal government's immigration and border policies. State Sen. Dan Patrick, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in Texas, has produced hard-hitting videos criticizing President Obama's handling of the border, while the issue could be significant for politicians like Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Texas, who's seeking a second term in Texas' 23rd district.

In the past week, however, border politics has played a starring role in a campaign thousands of miles away. Republican Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator now seeking the GOP nomination to run against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, launched a campaign this week focused on securing the border.

"Thanks to the pro-amnesty policies of President Obama and Sen. Shaheen, we have an immigration crisis on our hands," Brown says in a television ad his campaign ran this week. "We respond with compassion, but it's time for us to secure the border once and for all."

The Brown campaign also launched a radio ad and an online petition to tell Mr. Obama and Shaheen "that their pro-amnesty policies are hurting this country."

Amplifying the issue even further, Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, spoke with New Hampshire media twice this week specifically about immigration and border policies.

When asked to explain the focus on the issue, veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist Jim Merrill joked to CBS News, "We're a border state -- we border on Quebec."

Even though New Hampshire is so far from the U.S.-Mexico border, Merrill said that the issue "has always motivated Republican primary voters." It also gives Brown another opportunity, he said, to tie Shaheen to an unpopular president. The issue could resonate even more now, as Washington attempts to address the influx of unaccompanied children who have crossed the border in the past year.

"Probably like in other parts of the country, people look at it and feel like there's a lack of control," Merrill said.

Still, given New Hampshire's demographics, and the way the current crisis has had relatively little impact on the Granite State, the focus on the issue may seem out of place.

Immigrants made up about 5.6 percent of the population in New Hampshire in 2011, according to Census data. In Texas, by comparison, immigrants made up 16.4 percent of the population. According to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center, there were about 15,000 unauthorized immigrants in New Hampshire in 2010 -- making up about 1.2 percent of the state population.

While several states are working with the federal government to find temporary housing the unaccompanied children who have arrived in the U.S., New Hampshire is so far not one of them.

Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman who founded the pro-immigration reform group Americans by Choice, said that Brown's current focus on the border is partly just opportunistic.

"This is an issue in the news, so they're talking about it, probably in a way they weren't planning to two months ago," he told CBS News. "I was a little surprised he went up with those ads... The language he uses and the rhetoric is not inflammatory -- who's against securing the border -- but it hasn't been a flash point issue here, historically or recently."

At least one recent survey suggests immigration isn't a major topic of discussion in New Hampshire. A WMUR Granite State Poll conducted earlier this month asked asked people in New Hampshire about the most common topic that is discussed by their family -- 6 percent named immigration. While it came up more than global warming or the midterm elections, Granite State residents were more likely to say they're talking about health care or the economy.

The poll, however, does show that what little interest there is in immigration comes mostly from Republicans -- just 2 percent of registered Democrats surveyed said their family is talking about immigration, compared with 8 percent of registered Republicans.

Merrill, who was a consultant for the Romney campaigns in the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, noted that the issue was critical for Republican voters in the 2008 New Hampshire primary, after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., teamed up with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to work on immigration reform.

"It as remarkable, the level of energy you'd see at town hall meetings among people very concerned about amnesty and securing the border," Merrill said. "That's never gone away."