Skip to Content

Democrats grapple with the right way to talk about Biden’s immigration policies

By Arit John and Eva McKend, CNN

Phoenix (CNN) — Laura Grant has been keeping tabs on what Congress has done – or not done – to overhaul US immigration and border policy.

The 47-year-old insurance agent said she’s concerned about the deteriorating situation at the border. The Phoenix resident wants a more streamlined process for migrants but said she doesn’t trust either party to solve the issue. Democrats didn’t seem to grasp the severity of the situation, she said. And Republicans rejected a bipartisan border security bill she supported.

“I just don’t know what their agenda is anymore,” Grant told CNN during a recent interview at her home here. “They’re for it. They’re not for it. So we’re just kind of in the middle now.”

Ahead of the November election, President Joe Biden and many Democratic campaigns are hoping to chip away at what polls have shown is a Republican advantage on immigration, particularly in battleground states such as Arizona.

The centerpiece of Democrats’ approach has been the bipartisan border bill. In February, Republicans blocked a border deal and foreign aid package despite demanding last year that Democrats pair border security with Ukraine aid. The border security legislation, which failed for a second time in the Senate last week in a vote GOP senators called a political stunt, has given Democrats a concrete example to point to as they seek to portray Republicans as unwilling to address the issue.

But the strategy, an effort to triangulate between liberal and conservative policies to appeal directly to results-driven voters, has also reignited an ongoing debate within the Democratic coalition over how to address migration and the border.

Democratic campaigns, which have mostly been on defense on immigration policy since Donald Trump entered the political scene, have pointed to New York Rep. Tom Suozzi’s February special election win as a sign that campaigning on border security as well as legal pathways for migration is a winning approach for the party. Polling has also shown voters want Congress to pass the bipartisan border deal.

But some members of the Democratic coalition – including progressives, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who were excluded from negotiations over the border bill and migrant advocacy groups in swing states – have warned that Democrats need to emphasize pro-immigrant policies to draw a clear contrast with Republicans. They have argued for a course correction from the party and a bigger push toward work permits for long-term residents.

Both sides of the debate argue their approach is key to helping Biden win, particularly in swing states like Arizona, where immigration is top of mind for voters and polling has shown Biden trailing Trump.

Alejandra Gomez, the executive director of Living United for Change in AZ, or LUCHA, said it would be difficult for her organization’s canvassers to talk to voters about Biden’s immigration policies. For now, the organization is focusing on down ballot races and local issues.

But Gomez also framed the 2024 election as a binary choice.

“There is accountability that has to happen, but that accountability won’t exist under a Trump administration,” she said.

Grant, who was visited by a LUCHA canvasser knocking on doors for US House candidate Raquel Terán on a recent Friday, said she would ultimately vote for Biden because of his stance on abortion rights. Arizona lawmakers recently repealed a near-total abortion ban and advocates are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution.

Damon, a 57-year-old Phoenix resident and Department of Veterans Affairs employee who declined to give his last name, also cited abortion as a reason he plans to vote for Biden in an interview after a visit from a LUCHA canvasser. But he said he felt Biden had waited too long into his presidency to take action on the border.

“If we’re going to cut right to the chase here, I think he lost the election for us already,” he said.

A binary choice

Ahead of next month’s first presidential debate, mainstream Democrats are doubling down on a border security-focused strategy and the effort to shift blame to Republicans.

“Trump killed it – not once, but twice,” Biden campaign spokeswoman Fabiola Rodriguez said in a statement to CNN after Thursday’s vote.

A recent memo from House Democrats’ campaign arm said candidates would go “on the offensive against disingenuous far-right political attacks from Republicans” on border policy. House Republicans have said the bipartisan border proposal doesn’t go far enough but have also signaled a reluctance to grant Biden an election year victory. Trump said earlier this year that a border deal now would be a political “gift” for Democrats.

The White House is considering other options to display a tougher stance on migration, including sending Biden to visit the border and issuing a new executive order limiting asylum claims, CNN reported earlier this month.

“What the average American wants, including the average Latino, is a well secured and well managed border,” said Matt Barreto, a pollster who focuses on Latino voters and who worked with Biden’s 2020 campaign.

Those same voters also support Democratic immigration priorities such as permanent legal status for Dreamers, who were brought to the country illegally as children, Barreto said, adding that he expects the president’s campaign to focus on those policies ahead of the election.

For now, calling Republicans on their bluff is also a winning issue, Barreto said.

“I think part of the political strategy is, you’ve got the Republicans cornered on the border,” he said. “So why not keep talking about it?”

California Rep. Robert Garcia, a national advisory board member for Biden’s campaign, acknowledged the frustration of immigration advocates but argued that Trump presents the “worst possible choice.”

Trump has proposed swift and severe changes to the immigration system, including increasing the number of ideological screenings, expanding the ban to travel from predominantly Muslim countries and ending birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented migrants (which many legal observers believe is unconstitutional and likely implausible). He has also promised to launch the “largest domestic deportation operation in American history.”

Trump has coined the term “Biden Migrant Crime” as he and other Republicans highlight crimes committed by migrants to falsely argue that migrants have fueled a crime wave.

The bipartisan border bill, introduced in February, was designed to appease Republicans who said they wouldn’t approve foreign aid to Ukraine and Israel without a border security component. The legislation would have sped up the asylum process and expanded the president’s ability to limit migrant crossings at the US-Mexico border. Trump came out against the deal before it was introduced, dooming the initial vote.

On Thursday, Senate Democrats’ second attempt to pass the bill failed by an even larger margin – 43-50 – and lost the backing of two of the key negotiators, independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma.

“Today is not a bill. Today is a prop,” Lankford said ahead of the vote.

Finding middle ground

For months, polls have shown immigration and the border as a top issue for voters, behind the economy and inflation. A CBS News/YouGov poll released this month found that 61% of likely Arizona voters said the US-Mexico border was a major factor in how they would vote, compared with 82% who pointed to the economy and 78% who named inflation. Trump led Biden in the poll by 5 points.

Among registered voters, 68% said they did not think the Biden administration was taking steps to reduce the number of migrants crossing into the US. Asked how recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America had shaped life in Arizona, 52% said they’d made life worse, 13% said they’d made life better and 35% said they saw no impact.

To address those divides, Democrats – from the Biden campaign down to Senate and House Democrats’ campaign arms – have tried to find a middle ground.

Biden has frequently referred to the bipartisan border bill as the “toughest” set of reforms in decades. But he has highlighted his efforts to push comprehensive immigration reform in the first days of his presidency at Democratic campaign events.

Allies also note that even the border security bill contains pro-immigrant policies, including a pathway to citizenship for Afghans; 250,000 new green cards, raising the cap for the first time in more than 30 years; relief for children who came to the US on a parent’s work visa; and funding for immigration lawyers for children.

Supporters have also pointed to the administration’s efforts to expand protections to migrants through regulations and executive actions, including Biden’s broad use of humanitarian parole authority to allow various groups to stay in the country.

“The theory I think that this administration is really operating under is creating lawful pathways so that we have people coming with a visa and not with a smuggler, and that they’re coming for a purpose,” said Angela Kelley, a former volunteer with the Biden-Harris transition team and chief adviser at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “They’re coming to work, they’re coming to reunite with a family member, they are coming because they’re seeking protection.”

Broken promises

Immigrant rights advocates – and Democratic lawmakers critical of their party’s border-first strategy – say the risk heading into the fall is that organizers will feel deflated, and some voters will ultimately choose to stay home if Democrats don’t develop a more distinctive message that celebrates the contributions of immigrants and focuses on their positive impact on the economy. They cite a recent projection by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that GDP will increase by about $7 trillion from 2023 to 2034 and revenues will be greater by about $1 trillion due largely to immigration.

“The Democratic Party is making it really hard for us to do our job,” Luis Zaldivar, the Georgia state director for CASA in Action, a progressive group that mobilizes voters around immigrant rights issues, told CNN. “The immigrant voice has not been heard through the process.”

Illinois Rep. Delia Ramirez, a progressive who has continued to oppose the border bill, says it’s not enough to say the former president’s policies would be worse.

“I think we have this assumption: Let’s just move to the center and sound more Republican. We’ll get people to vote for us,” Ramirez said. “It’s not working. We’re sounding just like the other guy, so what ends up winning is apathy.”

The risk is losing voters like Abigail Gutierrez, a 22-year-old EMT from Phoenix who voted for Biden in 2020. Gutierrez told CNN that immigration is her top issue because she’d seen how much federal policies have affected her community. She hoped to see something done to help migrants who are already in the country “so people aren’t scared to be here.”

Asked about Biden, Gutierrez said she’s not sure if she will back him again this November.

“I just think there were a lot of promises that were made that weren’t kept,” she said.

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

Jump to comments ↓

Author Profile Photo

CNN Newsource


News Channel 3-12 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content