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Republicans Bet ‘Border Crisis’ Headlines Will Undermine Biden Immigration Plan

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This story is co-published with Capital & Main

President Joe Biden talks to reporters during the first news conference of his presidency in the East Room of the White House on March 25, 2021.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“The current border surge of migrants is a huge test for Biden and the Democrats,” says Deepak Bhargava, an immigration reform advocate, a former executive director of the Center for Community Change and an editor of Immigration Matters. “They have inherited a system that is fundamentally incapable of meeting the needs of children and families fleeing persecution. They are going to have to make massive reform.”

But “It seems to me like the Republicans are betting a lot on the idea that they can undermine Biden’s overall program by fomenting the idea that there’s an unmanageable crisis at the border,” Bhargava says.

Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar, whose South Texas district sits on that border, told the Tampa Bay Times, “It looks like they [the GOP] are trying to weaponize the border situation against Democrats in 2022 to say that we’re weak on border security.”

Cuellar is watching his back—he only narrowly beat challenger Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney, in a Democratic primary last year but did handily beat a Republican opponent, Sandra Whitten, in the Nov. 3 general election.

The Republicans are beating the drum on the border chaos narrative. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise notified colleagues that they should oppose the American Dream and Promise Act because it would “worsen the situation at the border.” The act, however, only affects people who are already in the United States, brought here as children by parents, and has nothing to do with current issues at the border.

Bob Mulholland, a California Democratic strategist for three decades, agrees that events at the border put Democrats in a tough spot—negotiating between moving forward on immigration reform and winning in Congress in 2022. “They finally realized that the American people are not gonna put up with these millions of people coming in because they’ve got economic trouble. Voters are saying, ‘What about me? I have economic trouble.'”

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The present political dynamics and the “border crisis” banner headlines complicate efforts to move immigration rights policy forward, but advocates are hopeful in a way they haven’t been in a long time.

Bhargava thinks the political ground may be shifting, pushed by long-term base building and organizing and changing demographics in the U.S. that include many more younger voters of color. Years of work by immigration reform advocates, he says, have moved the policy debate.

Immigration bills by Democrats and Republicans alike have typically linked policy reforms that would create a smoother system to receive and process immigrant legal status to increased and stronger enforcement measures, Bhargava says. That means more money for pursuit and detention, less emphasis on a more comprehensive, practical approach.

“We have not yet had a budget bill pass under Democrats or Republicans that has lowered expenditures for immigration enforcement,” he adds. “Ever since 2001 it’s gone up every year. Democrats in power, Republicans in power—it hasn’t mattered much.”

Recent immigration measures framed in the comprehensive bill and now being advanced piece by piece focus on approaches to adjusting status and eventual citizenship.

“The old dynamic was that Democrats had to acquiesce to enforcement machinery or increase that machinery. The movements’ relentless focus on the harms of that machine have severed the link,” says Bhargava. “That’s a very radical change. Not far enough, we still actually need to dismantle the entire thing, but it’s a good start.”

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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