President Biden can and must Resolve America’s Immigration Crisis

President Biden is the only person in government who can break Congress’s record of failure. 

No pundit can predict what heated issue will dominate the presidential and congressional elections in 2024. However, aside from the Supreme Court making a historic decision to eradicate another established freedom, like marrying who you wish, regardless of gender or race, migration will remain a national issue.

Public opinion polls have consistently ranked controlling immigration as a significant concern for Americans. For example, a Gallup opinion poll taken in July 2022 showed that 38% of Americans wanted a decrease in immigration, the highest percentage since July 2016, when Donald Trump was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate.

But that concern is concentrated among the Republicans. A Pew Research poll showed that “around three-quarters of Republican voters say immigration (76%) is very important to their vote.” For Democratic backers, it was only 36%. 

Independent voters, who played a critical role in Joe Biden becoming president, could tip the scales to either party on this issue. They clearly see Democrats and Republicans having opposite positions on migration. The non-partisan company Morning Consult surveyed registered independent voters in July 2018. It found that independents deem Democrats more supportive of immigrants coming into the country by a 62-point margin than the Republicans. In effect, they see Democrats as owning the migration flow into America. 

If the Republicans continue attacking Democrats for having an open, unsecured border, more independents could support Republicans. That’s because 52 percent of independent voters singled out border security as their most crucial voting topic. The survey also discovered that when it comes to national security issues, independents heavily favor Republicans over Democrats, 45 percent to 22 percent.

Another constituency that Republicans have been trying to sway away from the Democrats is the Latinos. By hammering on the need for border security, Mike Madrid told NPR News that the Republicans are gaining Latino votes in communities along the southern border. 

In the two border swing states of Arizona and Nevada, Latino voters make up 24% and 20% of their state’s eligible share of voters. Across the nation, 66% of them chose Biden.  In Arizona, it was a little less, at 63%. Their Nevada turnout was 70%, although it was significantly lower than Hillary Clinton’s 81% in 2016. These are slight shifts toward the Republican party. Even a couple of percentage points lower from Latino voters could tip these states to a Republican presidential candidate in 2024. 

In 2024 the political game will again see the two parties repeating their past themes. One plays on fear, and the other on hope.

Republicans are for stopping the growing flow of asylum seekers and restricting the number of all immigrants. They tag those crossing from Mexico as potential criminals or drug dealers. According to America’s Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group, more than 400 political ads tying illegal immigration to drugs were run in the 2022 election cycle. Often, they connect fatal overdoses of fentanyl and methamphetamines to a spike in migration at the southwestern border.

Republican strategist Madrid believes that the immigration border policy war between the two parties will continue until significant migration policy reform is achieved. However, the Republicans “want the issue to remain because it serves them politically. It appeals to their base.” Their use of visuals like caravans of immigrants trekking across Central America to pile up at our border is used as theater on TV to illustrate the border crises. Madrid sees this approach as wanting to “force the Democrats to increase border security which is unlikely without a comprehensive deal.”

Meanwhile, Republican potential presidential candidates, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, are pursuing theatrics instead of bipartisan solutions. They bus immigrants to Democratic strongholds like NYC and Wash DC., including Vice President Kamala Harris’s home. Those performances keep their names in the national headlines and in the minds of Republican primary voters as doing anything.  

Democrats highlight the human suffering that drives immigrants into our country, not the need for greater security. They appeal to our nation’s tradition of being a safe sanctuary for those seeking a better life. Nevertheless, the Democrats reluctantly recognize that the huge increase of immigrants seeking asylum is overwhelming our southern border staff for validating asylum requests and providing humane shelter facilities. 

Consequently, Biden administration officials have asked Congress for more than $3 billion to process the backlog of asylum claims and to move migrants off the streets or from packed warehouses into livable facilities. However, he will not get those funds from a Republican-controlled House unless he supports higher security measures that drastically reduce the number of immigrants. 

Biden is trying to show that he supports more security on the border. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announced that the president had “23,000 agents working to secure the southern border.” That was an increase from just under 17,000 agents in 2022. 

However, that is not good enough for conservative Republicans who have suggested that the military secure our southern border with Mexico. However, even when President Trump ordered 800 Army troops to do that, a good portion included engineers to help construct tents and fencing and doctors for medical support. 

Governor Abbott deployed more than 500 National Guard troops along the Rio Grande in El Paso, blocking migrants with spools of concertina wire. But those troops did not stop migrants from entering the county. It was basically an exercise in “just redirecting the migrants to the only legal port of entry” as Maj. Sean Storrud, Task Force West Commander for the Texas National Guard, explained. 

The problem of securing the border is not simply deploying armed soldiers. It’s a much deeper and more complicated problem that the Republicans and Democrats must work to resolve. Both parties have spoken about the need for immigration reform as a long-term solution. But their solutions, to date, have been almost mutually exclusive. 

Republicans have only proposed increasing security measures, like completing the wall or hiring more border patrols. The Democrats will oppose those measures unless they are coupled with providing a fair system for vetting the needs of immigrants seeking asylum. Thus, the stage is set for nothing to pass Congress in the next two years.  

Gridlock on migration policy is the failure to even vote on major bi-partisan legislation. Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas), Thom Tillis (R – NC), Kyrsten Sinema (D – AZ) of Arizona, and Maggie Hassan (D – NH) introduced the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act in 2021. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) introduced a companion bill in the House.

The National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy non-profit group, analyzed the bill, characterizing it as a “positive step” that “furthers the conversation around much-needed reforms.” Democrat Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick also supported the bill’s framework, but the bill never got to a floor vote in 2021. 

In 2022, the bill was in play again, outlining an immigration proposal providing a path to legalization for 2 million undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, known as “dreamers.” In addition, the proposal, to garner Republican support, would provide at least $25 billion in increased funding for the Border Patrol and border security. And it would also extend Title 42 for at least a year. 

The more liberal and conservative wings in both parties killed it. The ACLU director of border strategies said that the billincluded “some positive provisions” but was “a step in the wrong direction.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who co-authored the 2021 immigration bill, said he “doesn’t think there’s any way we can pass immigration legislation without addressing the crisis at the border.” President Biden had publicly ignored the bill and kept his distance from influencing the meager negotiations to build support for its passage 

Another bi-partisan immigration bill was shelved and never came to a vote in 2022. Democrat Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the sponsor of the Eagle Act, wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressing “great disappointment” that her legislation to revise green card caps was yanked from consideration on the House floor despite having been debated there. An earlier version passed both houses in 2019, but the chambers couldn’t resolve their different versions before the year ended. As a result, this year, fewer Republicans supported it, and there was a drop off in support from some Democrats and immigrant advocates. However, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, blamed opposition to the legislation on a “misunderstanding that somehow this is negative for certain communities.”

Given the failures to have even a floor vote for bi-partisan bills these last two years, it is doubtful that if it were just left for Congress to lead, no bipartisan bill would pass before the presidential 2024 election. Remember that Congress has remained gridlocked on immigration policy going back to 2001 when the first bill to legalize Dreamers was introduced. Since then, bipartisan efforts to change U.S. immigration laws have failed in 2018, 2013, and 2007. 

President Biden is the only person in government who can break that record of failure. But it would take more than negotiating skills. It demands the ability to hammer together sixty votes in the Senate forcibly and a majority of votes in the Republican-controlled House. Moreover, that effort would require him to appeal to the public. 

Multiple grassroots organizations could support him in a robust and vigorous campaign to push for an imperfect but doable solution. One that would visibly mitigate the immigration calamity that is only growing, not receding.

Suppose Biden fails to pressure Congress to pass a bi-partisan immigration policy. In that case, there will likely be a reactionary movement drawn to a “strong man” (or woman) presidential candidate in 2024 who will promise to stop the “flood” of immigrants crossing our southern border. And if that happens, more will be at risk than losing the presidency. 

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

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