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Immigration Is The First Big Intraparty Struggle Of The Biden Era

President Joe Biden’s administration is struggling to deal with an increase in migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and Republicans who insist it’s all Democrats’ fault, further complicating an already murky path for overhauling the country’s immigration system. 

On Thursday, the House passed legislation giving a pathway to citizenship to the young undocumented migrants known as “Dreamers” and to 400,000 immigrants living with temporary protected status, as well as a separate piece of legislation granting legal status ― but not citizenship ― to millions of undocumented farmworkers. 

But making either of those bills a legal reality ― never mind potentially crafting a large-scale deal with the GOP to grant legalization to millions of other undocumented immigrants ― looks increasingly difficult. Democratic aides, legislators and operatives are divided on what path to take, and most Republicans are more interested in turning the border crisis into a winning political issue than in seeking out compromise.  

“While the situation at the border does need its proper attention and response, let’s not get distracted here,” said California Sen. Alex Padilla, who has pushed other Democrats to pass immigration legislation since taking office earlier this year. “I think this underscores the urgency for a long-overdue change in immigration policy.” 

After the relatively smooth passage of the popular $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan for coronavirus relief, this past week’s actions on immigration show how Biden and Democrats could struggle to make large parts of their agenda a reality as fresh crises appear and their razor-thin congressional majorities fail to overcome a united Republican party. 

The situation at the border is clearly pulling focus from broader reform efforts. Biden administration officials held a conference call with reporters on Thursday not to discuss the path forward for legislation ― but to address their efforts to deal with a surge of migrants that began under Donald Trump’s presidency.

U.S. officials encountered migrants crossing the border with Mexico more than 100,000 times in February, the first time since 2019 that migration was that high, and families and unaccompanied children made up 29% of that mix ― a sharp increase since the end of Trump’s presidency.   

There are now more than 14,000 migrant children in federal custody, and the Department of Health and Human Services ― which is responsible for caring for child migrants apprehended without their parents ― is struggling to find adequate shelters amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Administration officials said on the conference call it could take months to find them acceptable accommodations.

Republicans, led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), have blamed Biden’s promises for a more humane immigration system and his administration’s move to end harsh policies targeting asylum-seekers for drawing migrants to the border in larger numbers. 

“They are sending the message that anyone who makes the dangerous journey to cross the border will be rewarded,” McCarthy said in a speech on the House floor on Thursday, later accusing Democrats of “wasting time on a bill that could not be less timely or targeted to the issue at hand.”  

Biden administration officials have dismissed that argument, instead pointing to the devastation wreaked by two hurricanes that struck Central America this year and noting that 2019 was a record year for migration despite Trump “ripp[ing] over 3,000 children from their parents’ arms,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters. 

“Deterrence and language alone are not sole factors of migration decisions,” the official continued.

There are many Republicans who don’t want us to fix this broken immigration system. They’re going to their biggest red meat issue. This was Trump’s play all the time, over and over and over again.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro

Still, there appears to be some effort from the Biden administration to tell migrants to stay away. Biden himself delivered a message in an interview with ABC News. “I can say quite clearly: Don’t come over,” he said, reiterating that most adults and family are being sent back across the border or to their home countries. 

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who ran for president on one of the most liberal immigration plans in decades, told reporters that Republicans were using the border crisis to derail the push for immigration reform and to distract from the Biden administration’s popular COVID-19 relief package. 

“There are many Republicans who don’t want us to fix this broken immigration system,” Castro said on a conference call while reiterating that he hoped many immigration measures could earn bipartisan support. “They’re going to their biggest red meat issue. This was Trump’s play all the time, over and over and over again.” 

Republicans are largely unified in their opposition to broader immigration reform, with four years of defending Trump’s hard-line policies under their belts. The GOP, which faces internal splits over how to deal with Trump, national security and economics, sees relatively little dissent on immigration issues. 

Dareli Matamoros, a girl from Honduras, holds a sign asking President Biden to let her in during a migrant demonstration demanding clearer United States migration policies, at San Ysidro crossing port in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico on March 2, 2021.

“The Biden administration is creating chaos where there was order,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the Republicans who led negotiations during the last major attempt to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, said during a press conference on Wednesday. “The only way we’ll be able to sit down with our Democratic colleagues is for us to regain control of the border.”

Republican operatives say their internal polling points to immigration as a potential weakness for Biden and Democrats ahead of the ’22 midterm elections. A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this month found 53% of Americans had confidence in Biden’s decision on immigration policy ― lower than 65% of Americans who had confidence in his ability to fight the coronavirus or the 56% who had confidence in his handling of the economy. 

While Democrats were united on both bills that passed Thursday, two Latino members of Congress from South Texas ― Reps. Henry Cueller and Vicente González ― had warned of the pending migrant surge. Other moderate Democrats, like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, have not been shy about calling the situation a “crisis” ― a term White House officials have made a point of avoiding. 

The Biden administration sought to make a big splash on immigration, releasing a comprehensive bill ― although one without the improvements to border security Republicans would like to see ― on his first day in office. 

But there are divisions among Democrats on how to move forward on immigration. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a member of Democratic leadership, told reporters earlier this week he did not think there were votes to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill this Congress.

Durbin’s comments prompted New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the lead Senate sponsor of the Biden administration’s comprehensive immigration proposal, to warn Durbin not to “wave the white flag” just yet. 

Padilla has pushed for Democrats to use the budget reconciliation process ― which only requires 50 votes in the Senate rather than a filibuster-mandated 60 votes ― to adopt a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who did essential work during the COVID pandemic. He said he would like to start with a comprehensive proposal and turn to a piecemeal approach if it fails. 

“I’m for getting as much done as quickly as possible,” he said. “We’re having those conversations in real time on both sides of the aisle.”

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