Jan 13, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Biden's sudden centrist push on immigration

US President Joe Biden walks along the US-Mexico border fence in El Paso

President Biden walks along the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden has found recent support from border Democrats for what they view as a new public strategy on immigration.

Zoom in: The administration deployed a White House address and a visit to El Paso, all while House Republicans readied for investigations into the administration's handling of the border.

  • "I think on this issue, he is shifting to where a lot of us have been wanting him to go. He has shifted to the center," Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate border Democrat from Texas, told Axios following his trip to the El Paso border with Biden.
  • Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who also accompanied the president to the border in her district, agreed last week signaled a shift in strategy.
  • Escobar told Axios she thinks it is the right approach and that some of her more concerned colleagues are coming around.

Between the lines: Immigration has long been a political minefield — and the administration has struggled to politically address the record numbers of border crossings.

Democrats have tended to avoid the touchy subject beyond hammering Trump policies, such as family separation.

  • "We need to have a message as Democrats," Cuellar said. "We can have both. We can treat migrants with respect while also providing security."
  • Biden's decision to announce controversial, new border policies from the White House and then visit the border was striking. "The country needed to hear from him," Escobar said.

Meanwhile, Republicans have been more than happy to keep attention on immigration, most notably through efforts by some governors to bus migrants from border states to Democratic enclaves, driving national headlines.

What's happening: New policies that would offer new temporary, legal pathways but crack down on illegal border crossings and potentially make it harder for some migrants to access asylum have driven complaints from Democrats and advocates.

  • Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) released a scathing statement. Congressional Hispanic Caucus members peppered DHS Secretary Mayorkas with questions and concerns in a closed-door, virtual meeting.
  • Comparisons were drawn between Biden's newly announced policies and those of Stephen Miller — even as the former Trump official took to Twitter to criticize the expanded policy as "amnesty."
  • Escobar said she agrees with concerned activists and Democrats "1,000% on where I wish we could be, but those of us who live the reality on the ground have a more realistic perspective."

What they're saying: "Expanding pathways for legal immigration, increasing border security and reducing illegal immigration, have been principles core to President Biden’s approach on immigration since day one," a White House official told Axios.

  • The official added Biden “has held true to those principles even as he tailors his response to shifting migration patterns, new court orders, and Congress’ continued failure to act.”

The big picture: Biden embraced many of the priorities of progressive immigration advocates during the 2020 presidential election.

  • He made sweeping promises to end several Trump policies, pursue legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and end for-profit immigrant detention.
  • Since taking office, he has followed through on many of those goals and has repeatedly called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
  • But a significant uptick in border crossings, a shift in migrant nationalities and vast logistical issues faced by federal agencies as well as border states have helped push him to make a more public stance on his new enforcement policies on the border ahead of 2024.

The bottom line: Some see a change but aren't convinced the new policies are enough.

  • One Central American diplomat said Biden had changed his strategy on immigration and that it was significant that he visited the border.
  • But the diplomat added the new measures "in the short term will ease some of the pressure." They "will not solve the problem."
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