AUSTIN (Nexstar) – In mid-December, the number of asylum seekers crossing the border into El Paso rose sharply. The surge of people needing shelter, food, and water overwhelmed resources in the city. With freezing weather on the way, the mayor of El Paso declared a state of emergency.

The surge was the latest episode in an ongoing problem for communities along the border. For lawmakers in Washington, it brought new calls for immigration reform. But it also highlighted ongoing gridlock over the issue.

Days after the emergency declaration in El Paso, Sen. John Cornyn (R – Texas) spoke about the situation at a news conference with other Republican senators. He acknowledged the need for immigration reform, but also voiced anger and skepticism over the administration’s approach to immigration.

“It makes me angry that the Biden administration has poisoned the well by allowing this to happen, this humanitarian and public safety crisis. And that’s why even good ideas that are being floated this late in the year, have no way of getting any traction,” Cornyn said in December.

The debate over the border crisis seems like another example of a broken system in Washington D.C., with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledging the problem, but solutions coming about slowly.

In a recent poll conducted for the September Texas gubernatorial debate between Gov. Greg Abbott and challenger Beto O’Rourke, many voters wondered what politicians from both parties will do to bring people together, to compromise and work toward fixing some of the large problems facing the country.

In some ways, people in both parties seem willing to collaborate across party lines. Republican Congresswoman-elect Monica De La Cruz, for example, expressed her belief in cooperation in her victory speech on election night.

“If we all come together regardless of whether you are Republican or Democrat, I have no doubt that we will lead a nation that is even stronger, more prosperous, and secure,” De La Cruz said.

Monica De La Cruz speaks at a campaign event on October 10, 2022 at the University Drafthouse in McAllen, Texas. (Photo by ALLISON DINNER/AFP via Getty Images)

As a former member of the Democratic Party and the first Republican woman to represent Texas’ 15th Congressional District, De La Cruz has a remarkable position. On one hand, as a conservative who is supported by Trump and advocates for building the wall, she places special emphasis on border security. On the other hand, as the granddaughter of an immigrant who fled political injustice in Mexico, De La Cruz has also advocated for improving legal pathways for immigrants, including hiring more immigration judges to handle the backlog of asylum cases.

On an individual level, there are examples of a willingness to cooperate. The flip side of the coin, however, lies in the structural realm. In an interview with Emily Sydnor, professor of political science at Southwestern University, the scholar explains why it is difficult for politicians to compromise and remain in the middle of the spectrum as a moderate politician or candidate.

“We’ve created an incentive structure in the primary system that favors more extreme, or more well-known, candidates. Because the people who vote in primaries tend to be stronger partisans with more polarized views, centrist candidates are less likely to win,” Sydnor said.

A good example of this effect can be found in the response to the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. The act was passed with the goal of reducing gun violence by, among other things, strengthening gun safety laws. President Joe Biden called it “the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades.”

Getting the bill to the floor for a vote required compromise, and Sen. Cornyn helped lead the negotiations. Cornyn said the bill was crafted jointly by both parties “looking at areas where we could agree and setting aside those areas where we could not”

Cornyn gave a speech defending the legislation at the Texas State GOP convention, which happened amid the negotiations. The senator was dramatically booed by his own party.

After that, Cornyn’s poll numbers took a dive. In April 2022, according to polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Cornyn had an approval rating of 53% among Republican voters in Texas. That number dropped to 41% in June after the negotiations over the gun legislation.

File photo of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. (Nexstar File Photo/Phil Prazan)

Once you leave Washington, the same pressures seem to prevail at the state level and carry over to state-elected members.

Texas State Rep. James Talarico, who will represent parts of northeast Austin in the next legislative session, said the problem stems from focusing too much on opposing ideals and beliefs.

“It’s over these manufactured culture war fights that are used to gin up the most extreme elements […]. But in reality, these culture war fights aren’t trying to solve any real problems”.

Sydnor, whose focus lies on understanding how people behave and how the institutions of the U.S. government shape that behavior, draws a connection between those cultural war fights and state-level action.

“We pay way more attention to debates that are happening on the national level and we use those debates as the lens through which we understand local politics,” the scholar said.

She goes on to explain how national partisan conflicts make it particularly difficult for state politicians to find common ground and thus reasonable solutions.

“Local politics tend to be less partisan in the issues that need to be addressed, but national politics is very partisan, and we use those national partisan lenses to debate local issues, to our detriment.”

Former teacher and Texas Rep. James Talarico talks about retraint cases in schools. (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)

By and large, it is true that most of the state-level disagreements between Republicans and Democrats stem from differing beliefs and the fierce national debates that shape Texas politics. Nevertheless, there are issues on which the two parties come together that are very specific and unique to Texas.

The interview with Talarico and a conversation with Democratic State Representative-elect Maria Luisa Flores highlights an issue that could bring both parties together: the improvement of public education.

In this regard, Talarico refers to the earlier success of the comprehensive House Bill 3, which was passed in a joint effort. “Democrats and Republicans came together to pass the historic school finance reform, and that included a lot of Democratic ideas and also included a lot of Republican ideas.”

Flores adds that building relationships is an essential part of finding common ground. “Sometimes you just need to drown out that noise and come to that human level” the long-time women’s rights activist said.

She also points out the weakness of her own party, which must be overcome internally to be more effective.

“So, I think getting a unified front by the Democrats would help them [in] coming to a consensus that we need to get change.”

Ensuring that all Texans, regardless of political affiliation, have access to the quality of life we all deserve is undeniably an essential component of politics that requires action. And to bring about change in Texas, both Republicans and Democrats must be willing to be open-minded and learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Is this a feasible goal? A good answer might be found in Talarico´s take: “I think what I would describe this is hope, which is a little different than optimism because you’re not sure that there’s going to be a good outcome at the end, but you’re trusting that things will work out for the best.”