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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden tries to flip the politics of immigration



Migrants and asylum seekers waiting on the southern bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico on May 10, 2023. President Joe Biden has made a point of calling out Republicans for tanking the border restrictions they have demanded for years. (Meridith Kohut/The New York Times)

By Michael D. Shear


If President Joe Biden moves ahead with a plan to block people who illegally cross into the United States from claiming asylum, it is likely to face a swift legal challenge, much the way an effort by his predecessor in 2018 was blocked by the courts.


Politically, such a setback may not even matter.


For Biden, simply issuing an executive action just before his State of the Union address on March 7 could bolster his reelection campaign by demonstrating that he is unilaterally trying to secure the border over Republican opposition.


The president’s aides have seized on the decision by Republican lawmakers last month to kill a bipartisan border measure when polls show Americans are deeply concerned about the number of people crossing from Mexico after fleeing gangs, torture and economic distress in Central and South America.


“Folks, doing nothing is not an option,” Biden told the nation’s governors Friday during a meeting at the White House, suggesting that they pressure lawmakers to revive the border bill in the days ahead.


But if they do not, Biden is betting that he can appeal to voters who are concerned about immigration by invoking his executive authority to show that he is willing, in his own words, to “shut down the border” amid a surge in migration.


The plan under consideration would mirror the bipartisan bill that congressional Republicans thwarted. But even the White House acknowledges that executive action — even if it survived legal challenges — could not provide the sort of money and resources for controlling the border that Biden had wanted Congress to approve.


Still, the strategy represents a drastic reversal in American politics. Former President Donald Trump and Republicans have spent the past decade fanning the flames of fear and insecurity about the border, while Democrats positioned themselves as the defenders of persecuted people who deserved a chance at the American dream.


That dynamic has changed in the past several years, as Biden struggled to contain record-breaking numbers of people trying to enter the United States from Venezuela, Haiti, Honduras, and countries in Africa and Asia.


As many of those immigrants poured into Democratic-led cities like New York, Denver and Chicago — sent in part by the Republican governor in Texas — Democrats began demanding stronger controls at the border. Many Democrats in Congress, even some who have long been champions of immigration, have echoed those requests.


The White House has called out Republicans for tanking the very restrictions that they have been demanding for years. Biden’s aides have characterized the move as craven politics and a gift to Trump, whose yearslong assault on the asylum system has been a centerpiece of his political identity and his presidency.


After the failure of the bipartisan immigration bill, which would have allowed severe restrictions to be imposed at the border and provided billions of dollars for agents and asylum processing, Biden’s team has been debating whether he can use executive authority to accomplish something similar.


Even if such a move appeals to many people in his party, the president still has to contend with progressive Democrats and a cadre of immigration activists who are furious that he is willing to embrace some of the same kinds of restrictive policies that Trump and his allies pushed for four years when he was president.


They argue that Biden’s willingness to shut down asylum when so many people are trying to come to the United States is a fundamental violation of the country’s decades-old commitment to be a refuge for those seeking safety and a better life.


The executive action under consideration could undermine the Biden campaign’s efforts to appeal to part of his liberal base. And it ignores efforts to increase legal immigration, which has been a goal of Democratic politicians.


So far, Biden appears willing to defy those concerns in the interest of taking strong action at the border.


At the same time, it is not clear that the executive action he is considering will persuade voters that he will be tougher on the border than Trump.


Trump’s advisers do not believe that Biden can out-border the former president, who helped sink the bipartisan measure last month by saying that it was not tough enough. They argue that voters who believe in turning away migrants will vote for Trump, not for what the advisers consider a washed-out version of Trump’s policies.


In fact, the former president’s allies on Capitol Hill have begun a political campaign aimed at using the border situation for their political advantage.


Speaker Mike Johnson, whose opposition to the bipartisan border bill helped kill it, accused Biden this week of not being serious about solving a problem that Republicans say he was responsible for.


“Americans have lost faith in this president and won’t be fooled by election-year gimmicks that don’t actually secure the border,” Johnson said in a statement. “Nor will they forget that the president created this catastrophe and, until now, has refused to use his executive power to fix it.”


White House officials said this week that no decision had been made about whether the president would issue the executive action. But if an announcement comes soon, it would signal that Biden and his team recognize how central the issue of migration is to the campaign.


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