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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump’s border intervention gives Biden a chance to shift from defense to offense

President Joe Biden walks from the Oval Office across the South Lawn of the White House as he departs aboard Marine One in Washington, on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)

By Peter Baker

When President Joe Biden agreed to bipartisan talks on border legislation last fall, Democratic strategists hoped a deal might take the issue off the table for his reelection campaign.

But with the collapse of the resulting bipartisan immigration agreement this week at the hands of former President Donald Trump, Biden got something else instead: someone to blame.

The crisis at the southwestern border has been one of the most vexing challenges of Biden’s presidency, one that has defied his policy prescriptions and drained his public support. With record numbers of migrants illegally crossing into the country, the president has come under pressure from Democrats as well as Republicans to take more action.

For three years, Biden struggled to offer voters a compelling answer to the question of why the border has turned into such a crisis on his watch. He has avoided public discussion of the issue as much as possible, preferring to focus his messaging on other priorities. But with Trump’s intervention persuading congressional Republicans to abandon the border deal that they themselves had demanded, Biden finally has an opportunity to shift from defense to offense.

“The American people are going to know why it failed,” he declared in a televised speech at the White House. “I’ll be taking this issue to the country, and the voters are going to know that it’s not just a moment — just at the moment we were going to secure the border and fund these other programs, Trump and the MAGA Republicans said no because they’re afraid of Donald Trump.

“Every day between now and November,” he added, “the American people are going to know that the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends.”

Trump and his allies ridiculed the idea that Biden could deflect blame after three years of failing to secure the border.

“Joe Biden blamed President Trump for the border crisis that Biden himself created,” said Karoline Leavitt, a spokesperson for the former president. “This is a brazen, pathetic lie and the American people know the truth — President Trump’s policies created the most secure border in American history, and it was Joe Biden who reversed them.”

Even as Republicans took their cue from the former president and rejected the deal as inadequate, they tried to make their point on the Biden administration’s failure on immigration by impeaching Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security. But the bid fell a vote short on the House floor Tuesday, an embarrassing setback for the GOP, which now has to decide whether to try again in the weeks to come.

The border has been one of Biden’s least favorite issues. Illegal crossings have shot up since he took office, from 73,944 reported in December 2020 just before he was inaugurated to 302,034 last December, and governors and mayors as far away as New York and Illinois have sounded alarms about the resulting burdens on their communities.

Forty-five percent of Americans now view the situation at the border as “a crisis,” up 8 percentage points from last spring, and additional 30% consider it “very serious,” according to a poll by CBS News and YouGov last month. A survey released Wednesday by PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist found that only 29% of Americans approve of Biden’s leadership on the issue, as more Democrats and independents express concern.

As a matter of pure politics, Biden was probably never going to outperform his challenger among voters who care strongly about illegal immigration, Trump’s signature issue since the days he led crowds chanting “build the wall” in 2016.

But in terms of reelection strategy, Democratic operatives believed that Biden needed to keep immigration from cutting into his support among swing voters disturbed by the surge of migrants entering illegally without alienating progressives who have been disappointed that he has not done more to reverse Trump-era policies.

It was a measure of how much the politics of the issue have shifted in recent years that Biden embraced the bipartisan deal negotiated by Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla.; Christopher Murphy, D-Conn.; and Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrat-turned-independent of Arizona.

The legislation would have tightened the rules for asylum-seekers, expanded detention facilities, hired more border agents, sped up the process to send back migrants who do not qualify and even shut down the border temporarily during peak times. But it incorporated none of the signature provisions long demanded by Democrats in comprehensive immigration legislation, such as a pathway to citizenship for those already here or protections for younger immigrants brought into the country as children.

Trump made clear that he saw the deal not as a solution but a threat to his bid to reclaim his office. “This Bill is a great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for The Republican Party,” he wrote on social media this week. “It takes the HORRIBLE JOB the Democrats have done on Immigration and the Border, absolves them, and puts it all squarely on the shoulders of Republicans. Don’t be STUPID!!!”

The White House wasted little time reframing the issue as an obstructionist Trump intimidating Republicans into turning on a deal that has the support of conservative institutions, including the Border Patrol union that has previously endorsed Trump. “Will the House GOP vote with the Border Patrol to secure the border, or with Donald Trump for more fentanyl?” the White House asked in a memo sent to reporters.

The change was welcome for Democrats looking ahead to a close election.

“Until very recently, the border was President Biden’s problem almost exclusively,” said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster. “But now by blocking strong, bipartisan border legislation Republicans have made it their problem as well.”

Biden’s critics, though, doubt he can shift blame after so much time. For much of his presidency, they said, the president and his allies have resisted even admitting there was a crisis, only to switch gears and say that there is one and that it is Trump’s fault.

“It seems to me absurd on its face,” said Mark S. Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a leading voice for tougher policies. “Obviously Biden partisans will latch onto that, and obviously Trump partisans will scoff at it. The question is will people in the middle buy it or not. I find it hard to believe that anybody would believe it. After three years?”

Elections, of course, revolve around narratives. For three years, Republicans had a clear story line when it came to the border — Biden either intentionally or incompetently opened the floodgates. Now the president has a counternarrative to offer — that whatever may have happened before, at least he wanted to fix the problem and Trump did not. The next nine months will test which one is more persuasive.

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Deborah Marchant
Deborah Marchant
Feb 10

Humanity is at the crossroads.

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