Biden’s rightward shift on immigration angers advocates. But it’s resonating with many Democrats

Feb 16, 2024, 9:02 PM

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks about border security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, J...

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks about border security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 5, 2023, in Washington. The Democrats' reframing of the immigration debate risks straining Biden's alliance with immigrants and advocates who campaigned for him in 2020. But it appears to be working for Democrats after they won a special House election in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — In his 2020 campaign, Joe Biden vowed to undo former President Donald Trump ’s immigration policies, specifically expressing frustration with a policy setting limits on the number of asylum seekers accepted each day at the southern border.

This year, Biden backed a Senate proposal that would have set daily limits on border crossings — and Democrats are planning to campaign to reelect him by emphasizing that Republicans caused the deal to collapse.

Democrats are reframing the immigration debate, going from embracing more welcoming policies in response to the Trump administration’s programs at the border — including its separation of hundreds of immigrant children from their parents — to declaring that they can get tough on border security and adopt policies long sought by Republicans. Biden’s rhetorical shift risks straining his support from immigrants and their advocates who campaigned for him in 2020, but it appears to be working for Democrats after they won a special election in New York.

“We need to lean into this and not just on border security, but, yes, tough border security coupled with increased legal pathways,” said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. “They tried it the Republican way, and Republicans were not serious about that.”

Democrat Tom Suozzi, who won Tuesday’s special election in New York for the House seat once held by ousted Republican Rep. George Santos, ran ads calling for more border security and featuring an interview he did on Fox News in which he supported U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

His district includes parts of Queens, a diverse New York borough that has received thousands of migrants bused from the border.

Suozzi also shares Biden’s position on creating a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of immigrants referred to as “Dreamers,” who are in the country illegally after coming to the U.S. with their families as children.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a New York Democrat, said he does not think the reframing of the immigration debate will backfire.

“I think that we can agree that it’s far better under a Biden administration than a potential rerun of Trump,” Espaillat said.

But to many immigrant advocates, the deal Biden negotiated with leaders in the Senate showed how a president who had long deemed Trump’s border policies inhumane was willing to curtail asylum in exchange for wartime aid for Ukraine.

More than 130 organizations from around the country sent a letter to Biden opposing the deal and the tougher standards for asylum. Some immigration activists expressed frustration with Biden and a lack of enthusiasm to go knock on doors for him at a recent gathering of more than a dozen advocacy groups in Arizona.

Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and secretary of housing and urban development who ran against Biden for the presidential nomination in 2020, suggested Biden and his allies were adopting the terms of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.

“Democrats, you’re never going to be cruel enough, ‘tough’ enough, anti-immigrant enough or able to deport your way to the negotiating table with McConnell and MAGA,” Castro said. “Stop playing their game.”

The border proposal would have included for the first time a right to counsel for vulnerable asylum seekers such as children 13 and younger and would have raised the cap on immigrant visas available by 250,000 over the next five years. The National Border Patrol Council and the Chamber of Commerce supported it.

“The President stands with the overwhelming majority of Americans who demand action from Washington to address our long-broken immigration system,” Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, said in a statement. “MAGA Republicans, led by Donald Trump, have opted to abdicate their responsibilities so they can demonize immigrants to score political points.”

Interviews with Democrats in Nevada, a critical swing state in November’s likely rematch between Biden and Trump, reflect that many people in Biden’s party are lining up behind him.

More than 30% of Nevada’s 3.1 million people identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census data. The state also has large Filipino, Chinese American and Black communities. According to estimates from the Pew Research Center, Nevada has the highest share of immigrants who are in the country illegally and are part of the workforce.

Trump rallied supporters recently at an indoor soccer field in a largely Latino neighborhood a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip, where he suggested the U.S. had the “worst border anywhere in the history of the world.”

“Our border has become a weapon of mass destruction,” he told a crowd of supporters.

Biden campaigned in Nevada days later, focusing on why he considered Trump a lasting threat to democracy and calling a potential second Trump term a “nightmare.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat and the only Hispanic woman in the upper chamber, said her constituents want to see an “orderly process at the border.” She said they still demand broad immigration reforms that legalize the status of “Dreamers” and others who only have temporary protections from deportation.

“We can work on a broken immigration system but also secure our border,” Cortez Masto said in an interview. “Many of the Nevadans that I talked to, including in the Latino community, get that because they want safe communities. They understand that. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue to work on fixing this broken immigration system.”

Cortez Masto said she hopes that after the collapse of the border deal, the public sees that Republicans were not looking for solutions.

“They want the chaos, they want to use it as political opportunity, they want to favor Donald Trump and serve him,” she said. Senate Republicans said they blocked it because it was insufficient.

Michael Kagan, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, criticized the Biden-backed proposal as moving far away from what many Democrats have considered to be necessary immigration reform. Kagan argued Biden’s shift to the right would backfire politically.

“Unfortunately, he largely adopted Donald Trump’s terms of the debate that a success is just when fewer people come,” Kagan said. “If that’s the goal you set out, I think voters will wonder, ‘Well, then why shouldn’t I just elect the harshest person possible?’”

Gabriel Aldebot, a 66-year-old union electrician in Las Vegas, said he felt lawmakers must secure the border, and a compromise that includes more resources for enforcement is the best way to do it.

“The more bipartisan, the more it’ll seem like it’s fair to people,” Aldebot said after voting for Biden in Nevada’s Democratic primary.

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Biden’s rightward shift on immigration angers advocates. But it’s resonating with many Democrats